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In Slow Practice


Corals and sea sponges are some of our most ancient animal relatives. For hundreds of millions of years, their bodies have been composing a geometry that humans now call hyperbolic space, their cells multiplying outward in dense folds. Growing this way, a coral is not one organism but many clustered together. Their tiny polyps branch outward to cover new areas of the sea floor. Sea sponges are older and simpler, porous skins filtering water for detritus.


The way humans draw breath in, down past our teeth, windpipes, and into our organs, then exhale the gases we can’t use—this is how sea sponges feed and grow, drawing water in through pores, and expelling what is inedible. Corals and sponges meander outward, forming the bases of entire ecosystems, and when they die their hollow skeletons sometimes offer homes for fish and other life. These are structures that, even after their lives have ended, support the lives of others.


Many mathematicians have tried to model the geometry that corals and sponges have possessed for so long, and in the 90’s, experimentation with crochet and knitting triggered a breakthrough. The resulting textile models, called hyperbolic textiles, meander while growing, so “the longer you stitch, the further you are from the finish.” [1] 


I spent the last months of 2023 knitting and crocheting squares for the hyperbolic installation Slow Calendar, [2] organized by The Only Animal Theatre. It was lengthy work, taking us an hour to stitch each square. Our team of four made over 250 squares, and then sewed them together so that they fold outward from a centre point. While I was making the squares, looping yarn row after row, I found that some yarns behaved, agreeing to become stitched or knotted. Other yarns preferred fluidity and always slipped out of place. While working with these slippery fibres I began dreaming of glue.


Mashing rice with water into a thick paste makes sokui, a Japanese word for rice glue. Sokui has a synthetic counterpart, wood glue, that dries stronger than the materials it binds together, so when trying to loosen it for a repair, the wood will break before the adhesive. Structures made with wood glue live once and then are discarded. But sokui will relax with steam, leaving wood intact to live multiple lives, cycling in and out of use. Rice has traditionally helped bind the structures that humans live in, through wood joinery and room dividers. It also serves other construction methods resembling clay.

Piles of sponge and coral skeletons calcify into limestone at the ocean bottom, then are mined to become an ingredient in rammed earth, a claylike method of building homes that was common in many places across the globe, before concrete became so ubiquitous. Rice has sometimes been found to lend its stickiness to rammed earth, especially in East and Southeast Asia, helping to bind powdered limestone with soil, shells, and sand into a malleable composite. Borrowing from the skeletons of animals like corals and sponges, limestone walls are strong for their porousness. They are filled with empty space which helps them accept their environments into themselves. Moisture and air pass through, and those living inside draw breath through bone. 



1. The Only Animal Theatre, 2023

2. See Environments for Reading at Salmon Arm Arts Centre, January - March 2024


The written piece In Slow Practice expands on ideas that arose while producing Slow Calendar, a textile installation by The Only Animal Theatre. The team of textile workers included Megan Lane, Kinar (Kira) Saragih, and Sena Cleave, led by Barbara Adler.

In Slow Practice is also a zine containing the written piece by Cleave alongside illustrations by Ysabel Gana. 

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