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(Archive) Permeance

Unearthed River Confessions

This project was part of DDW 2021
Collaborative Chromatographic Mapping I

'Permeance' is a conceptual lens emerged through a rhizomatic artistic research which follows the traces of cadmium contamination upstream and into the past, unearthing a chain of events which talk about river and soil pollution, extractive industries, and colonialism.

The river

The river Dommel is a natural fluvial system extending for the length of 146km, originating in Peer, Belgium and joining the river Meuse in the Netherlands. For over 125 years, the zinc-ore smelters in the Flemish Neerpelt, have been releasing toxic gases, and discharging contaminated waters with dissolved zinc and cadmium particles into the river Dommel. In the 1980s, after 85 years of uncontrolled industrial discharge, it became evident that the river bed soil contained heavy metal contaminants. Since then, soil decontamination projects have been carried out by scraping the river bottom and banks, and displacing the contaminated ground elsewhere. Despite the reduction of direct pollution from the smelters, the concentration of zinc and cadmium in the river sediment is still dangerously high for both aquatic and terrestrial creatures. These metals have permeated through bodies, from the industry into the river water, attached the soil, and absorbed by the flora and fauna. In this story, cadmium and zinc act as tracers as they continue their permeating journey, leaving behind a trail which reveals how entangled, contaminated and polluted our beyond-human encounters really are.

Permeance. To permeate, permeability, permeation: the action to diffuse through something.

Permeance is a conceptual lens through which to approach the entanglements of earthly life. It implies an awareness of our participation in symbiotic relationships with Earth, dismantling our parasitic use of the environment and its forms of life. The impermeable membranes created by modernity deteriorate into a pile of compost which stimulates exchanges of substances, nutrients, molecules and microorganisms through principles of physics and chemical processes, as well as molecular exchanges and biological absorptions.
The notion of permeability enables us to trace pollutants and understand the ruins we inhabit. This research indeed follows a history of pollution, which has been the ruination of both ecosystems and indigenous cultures. Unfortunately, too often we —in the West— are blinded by our perception that our actions are impermeable. Instead, permeating is only possible if we see beyond our limits: rivers flow between confines; histories of pollution can be displaced but not erased; contaminations can be absorbed but do not vanish; material histories can take you back to their geologies and along them stories of extractions and colonial violence emerge. Permeance unsilences.

Collaborative chromatographic mapping

Situated between a scientific backdrop and artistic production, this research materializes through the medium of soil chromatographies, a form of sustainable, slow, alternative cameraless photography, which gives agency to contaminated earths by revealing their chemical compositions through their permeation in the photographic paper.
By sampling along crucial points of the river, the soils used to create the chromatography actually unearth a mapping of pollutants. The result is a fundamental critique to both photography and cartography as anthropocentric, modern and colonial readings of the world. In opposition, the proposed mapping of the river blurs the lines —through contaminations— between art and science, dismantling the modern from a western positionality and proposing a demodern alternative. By critically reviewing the dominating human-centered practice of mapping, I searched for a new balance between my presence and the agency to the voices of living and non-living bodies. Through collaborative chromatographies, I conduct — bring together— the voices of the riverbed soil, permeating into each other, to speak about contaminations and map the voice of the river.

Collaborative Chromatographic Mapping II

Chromatographic Mapping Legend

The zinc smelting industry

The Dommel river catchment area