Isabel Marcos has been selected for Kunstfort Kasus 2020, an annual residency program that gives an artist or designer the opportunity to expand their studio work to (the surrounding area of) the Kunstfort for one year. From a postcolonial and hydrofeminist perspective Marcos investigates the meaning of objects in the water, such as anchors, chains and buoys. For the Kunstfort Journal Marcos wrote a personal essay about the production of rope and the use of rope in human activities on the water.
Mostly, my interest in ropes arose from soft architectures;1 hydrofeminism;2 and a desire to learn from objects that are used to moor and dock floating constructions, such as anchors, chains and ropes. Within these objects – designed to exist in an amphibious environment – the friction between dryland and wet life is somehow manifested. Before actively introducing rope making in my artistic practice, I spent many hours browsing through the Rijkmuseum Collection website to research amphibian artifacts. It wasn’t surprising to find the Rijksmuseum’s digital archive filled with objects extracted from merchant ships on the bottom of the sea. After all, the Dutch colonial empire was one of the world’s most extensive, reaching from Surinam, to South-Africa and Indonesia.
The short length of rope that the image on the right shows was excavated from the wreckage of ‘t Vliegend Hert (the flying deer), also known as t’ Vliegend Hart (the flying heart),3 a VOC ship built in 1729 that operated between 1730 and 1735. On the 3rd February 1735, at the onset of her second trip to Indonesia, ‘t Vliegend Hert hit some underwater sandbanks. The ship sank 18km off the shore of Vlissingen with its 256 crewmembers, and a hull filled with building materials; defense equipment; ammunition; silver and gold coins.
The rope was found in 1981, during an underwater excavation carried by the British-Dutch team “North Sea Archeological Group”. It only measures 17cm in length, and clearly shows the effects of centuries of immersion in corrosive salt water. The rope was found around a wooden tackle block, also preserved at the Rijksmuseum Collection.4 This indicates that it must have been part of a much longer rope that was most likely used to load and unload cargo on the vessel. In a way, the rope is one of the less captivating objects excavated from the shipwreck. Gold and silver coins, colored-clay pipes, dark glass bottles of wine – some still including cork and layer of wine, lead rolls, human ribs are among the more spectacular results of the North Sea Archeological Groups´ efforts. Although these objects sparkled off my computer screen, offering a remarkable glimpse into history, they didn’t manage to hold my attention. What wasn’t visible interested me more. How much toll had the salt water exactly taken? What deteriorated, and how much histories decayed at the bottom of the sea, as political regimes changed and wars divided the continents? The rope is my favorite. Everything, from canon ammunition to chests brimful of coins, needed this rope to embark on the ships voyages across the oceans separating the vast Dutch colonial empire.
Human beings began manufacturing and using ropes thousands of years before they threw themselves to conquer the watery world. In Walkscapes. Walking as an aesthetic practice, Italian architect and scholar Francesco Carieri challenges the common but erroneous conviction that architecture is an invention of the sedentary world rather than the nomadic world.5 Carieri claims that architecture goes beyond the physical construction of space and form: architecture is the symbolic construction and perception of space. The first city was founded on the strings, ropes and nets that enabled the primitive communities to carry their belongings and abandon the caves; it was the erratic path and its nomadic evolution. Anthropologist Tim Ingold goes so far as to say that “the making and use of threads could be a good index of the emergence of characteristically human forms of life”.6 These notions developed by Ingold and Carieri bring the invention of architecture close to what American archaeologist Elizabeth Barber called the “String Revolution”.
In 1994, Barber defended that threading, twisting and knotting plant-based fibers had an essential role since at least the Upper Paleolithic in a text called “the String Revolution”, that was published in her book Women’s Work: The First 20.000 Years. Barber challenged the idea that the first human manufactured tools were created from rigid materials such as stone. String technologies hadn’t received the same attention as stone and bone artifacts, partially because their organic materials couldn’t withstand the passage of time. Barber further develops her thesis by suggesting that the association of plants, thread manipulation and textiles in general with female labor played a role in the lack of attention these materials received as well.7 It is believed that twenty to thirty thousand years ago, women were already in charge of string making, a gender difference that is still upholded today.
Ropes carry, tie together, hold and moor; they help us to build new relations to space. The material of the rope from ‘t Vliegend Hert could be abacá banana tree fibers, also known as Manila hemp, but I can’t be sure. The first time I encountered Manila rope was on July the 7th, 2020. I visited A. Nobel&Zn. that day: a big warehouse and ship supply shop located in Zwijndrecht, a small town at the outskirts of Dordrecht, The Netherlands. The entrance to the enormous building faces the Oude Maas river, and when I arrived, there were more ships moored in front of the entrance than cars parked in the lot. When I entered the shop, I realized I didn’t fit in at all with the profile of clientele at A. Nobel&Zn. Nevertheless, Mr. Nobel almost immediately approached me to offer his kind help and advice. He couldn’t keep his curiosity to himself: “Why are you here? How did you find this place?”, he asked in correct but shy English.
I was there because I wanted to learn more about nautical ropes. How do they feel? What materials are they made from? What are their textures, colors, and how do you use them? All these questions had been in my mind ever since I first outlined my plans for a project at Kunsfort bij Vijfhuizen. There were hundreds of meters of different ropes in the shop. I told Mr. Nobel straight away that I didn’t own a boat, nor had I spent much time at sea. Actually, I was an artist, and I was there to familiarize myself with the nautical equipment his family sold for generations. He excitedly opened a sack, to show a bundle of khaki colored rope: “If you are an artist, you are going to like this one. It’s called Manila rope”. This rope was the only one manufactured from natural fibers in the establishment: every other kind was synthetic, or a mixture of cotton and synthetic fibers. The sack covering the big hank of Manila rope read: Pure Manila Rope. 20mm diameter. 220m length. 59.2 kg weight. Earth Friendly Ropes. When I asked if he knew the origins of this so called friendly rope, he raised his shoulders, and said he could only guess.
Later, I learned about British Naval Captain James Cook, who named the rope after the capital city of the Philippines and started trading it to Europe in the mid 1700s. Before, Spain, which had colonized the Philippines in the second half of the 16th century, rigged their ships sailing between Manila and Acapulco, Mexico, with Manila rope. Due to its strength and resistance to salt water, Manila rope was the most popular for nautical activities, before synthetic rope became mass produced in 1950, and took over of the market of nautical rope. Nowadays, 85% of the global production of Manila hemp takes place in the Philippines and the Manila rope that is exported to Europe is mostly used in luxurious yachts and sailing boats decoration.
Many different plants can be worked into fibers for ropes. For example, some types of wild grass from the family of the graminae, native to the Mediterranean region of Spain and North of Africa can be dried into esparto fibers. Esparto is not as popular for rope as Manila hemp, regular hemp, sisal and jute, but together with linen, it is the only plant-based fiber manufactured in Europe. Its use dates back 5,000 years at least. Esparto fibers are much shorter than the other types of fiber. This makes the rope less resilient. Moreover, the edges of the fiber break and protrude from the rope easily with use, which makes the rope hairy, and unsuitable for nautical use. Intrigued by learning more about the tactile qualities of esparto, and encouraged by the idea of working with a material that never participated in the colonial economies, I decided to search for some of these fibers.8
In August 2020, I visited Juan Sanchez’s atelier, located in the ground floor of his house in Carabanchel, a working-class residential neighborhood in Madrid, Spain. Juan is an espartero (esparto artisan). His father was an espartero, and so was his grandfather. Even though Juan was a computer engineer and worked in that field for years, when his father retired, he decided it was time to change his career and take over his father’s business. Until recently, he owned a shop in Madrid’s old city center where he sold basketry, small souvenirs, ropes, carpets and window blinds. Unfortunately, due to the covid-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdowns, in June 2020 Juan had to permanently close the shop that was in his family since 1927. He currently works from his atelier/home, selling esparto fibers by order as he repairs furniture and creates craftworks by commission.
When I bought some esparto machacado9 from Juan we chatted about my plans to make an esparto-based installation for the space and context of Kunsfort bij Vijfhuizen. He gave me two advises: esparto rope should only be made manually; and esparto belongs to dry climates, so urged me to be careful with its conservation in the Dutch humid polder. We also talked about hairy ropes, and I was happy to find that Juan found this quality as interesting and precious as me.
Even though the hairiness of esparto rope is generally seen as a weakness, it has a practical use in mussel farming. Mussels attach better to the rough and uneven surface of a hairy rope than to a smooth one, therefore the ropes allow mussels to grow in size and population. In Galicia, the north-western region of Spain, these material properties led to a thriving industry of farming bivalve mollusks. Ropes are suspended in a vertical position by tying them to a floating platform, producing a grid of soft columns that expands in diameter as mollusks grow on them. These structures – bateas – were originally created by farmers using old boat hulls and esparto ropes. Contemporary bateas use a type of synthetic rope, usually nylon or polyester, that is purposely designed to be hairy.
Thinking about hairs and water, I´m reminded of British writer Elain Morgan’s claim that human beings evolved from semi-aquatic apes. She supports her “Aquatic Ape Theory” by addressing the specific distribution of hair on our bodies. “Perhaps this ape lost its hair, because like the whale, she needed to stay warm in the water, and thus opted instead for a nice cushion of subcutaneous insulation. Perhaps she nonetheless held on to her abundant tresses (allowing her hair to grow thicker during pregnancy) so that her infant would have somewhere to cling while they paddled about together in the sea”, reflects Astrida Neimanis, hydrofeminist theorist and author of Bodies of Water, on Morgan’s story.10 Although so far, the theory hasn’t been proven, more evolutionary biologist have shown interest for Morgan’s alternative feminist evolutionary story the last few years. To me, the “Aquatic Ape Theory” makes a lot of sense. This is not because I’m a good swimmer (I am definitely not) but because of the sensorial experience of floating on your back: the way your hair waves in the water as you move your head from one side to the other. If our ancestors were soft skinned apes with long hair on their heads, could braiding each other’s hair have been a first step in learning how to manufacture strings from vegetable fibers?
Back in the Netherlands from Madrid, with as much esparto fibers as I could fit in my hand luggage, I contacted the TextielLab in Tilburg, eager to experiment and learn more about string making with this material. The TextielLab is a unique workshop for textiles. It comprises six different departments: weaving, knitting, embroidery, laser cutting, tufting and passementerie. In response to my request for collaboration, I received a phone call from Karen in September 2020, one of the artisans working at the TextielLab. When I spoke to Karen, my initial idea to make an esparto-based installation had condensed into a plan to create a penetrable “soft wall”. This wall was to consist of numerous esparto cords hanging from the ceiling until the floor, something that could be done at the passementerie department.
Karen has been working at the TextielLab for over 18 years, and she is one of the most experienced tufters of the country. She also works part time at the passementerie department. Passements means edgings in French. Passementerie comprises any fabric less than 15 cm wide, such as cords, strings, laces, elastics, ribbons, etc. Karen has a lot of knowledge on ropes, cords and braids but she had never worked with esparto before, and neither had I.
In January 2021, I travelled to Tilburg to meet Karen in the TextielLab. I brought the esparto fibers with me. In the train to Tilburg I read an interview with Swiss artist Françoise Grossen, by the editors of McGuffin Magazine.11 Grossen, famous for her big rope installations, claims that the difference between art and craft is non-existent. The paradigm in which she matured as an artist must have had something to do with her position: textiles where a highly gendered medium in the 60s. Exhausted of this narrow and sexist frame, Grossen actively resisted categorization and borders. She studied architecture for a short period of time before starting her studies in fine arts. Architecture remained a source of inspiration and fascination for her, however. Some of her biggest and better-known works were commissioned during the high demand for textile sculptures in the world of architecture and project development in the 70s in North America. To some, the postmodern architecture of that decade needed “softening”, ushering in the rise of popularity of large site-specific fiber sculptures. While reading the interview, I wondered if Grossen also resisted the limits between her work and the architecture that embraced it?
When I arrived at the TextielLab I waited for Karen at the front desk, and thought back on the last thing Juan told me in his atelier in Madrid: “Esparto must be worked by hand, never with machines. You can find tutorials in YouTube; I can also send you self-made videos if you want to learn how to twist and braid the fibers”. But what if we braid the fibers, instead of tensing and twisting them? What if we combined the esparto with other materials? What would a purposely hairy cord look like? In a way, I felt the presence of Grossen, and her strong resistance of borders as we began working in ways so different than prescribed and passed down by tradition and culture. Karen and I decided to not watch video tutorials, but learn through experimentation instead. At the end of the day, we reached 15 meters of hairy esparto cord. We´ll make more though. Who knows if it will end up in the water, and if so: how much toll will the water ask?
Isabel Marcos is an artist, PhD candidate at UCLM University in Cuenca (Spain) and a guest teacher at Minerva Art Academy in Groningen. She is currently a guest researcher at ASCA, Universiteit van Amsterdam and an artist in residency at Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen.
1. I use the term soft architecture as an umbrella for the world of textiles, female labor, and how they relate to contemporary architecture discourses. I borrow the term from the Office for Soft Architecture, the alter ego that Canadian poet Lisa Robertson uses to write about “the history of surfaces”. For more information: Lisa Robertson, Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2003).
2. Hydrofeminism is a proposal to think and learn from water firstly introduced by Australian theoretician Astrida Neimanis in her book Bodies of Water. Posthuman feminist phenomenology (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).
3. It is most likely that the original name of the ship was ‘t Vliegend Hert because the VOC ships were usually named after animals. In this text I have decided to use ‘t Vliegend Hert instead of ‘t Vliegend Hart, unless quoting a different author.
4. For those interested in learning more about the salvage of the wreckage of ‘t Vliegen Hert, and how the national, cultural and economic interests involved in such operation intertwine, I strongly recommend reading “Integrated assessment of the buried wreck site of the Dutch East Indiaman ’t Vliegent Hart”, published by Tine Missiaen, Ine Demerre and Valentine Verrijken in RELICTA (BRUSSEL) 9, 2012, 191-208.
5. Francesco Careri, Walkscapes, Walking as an aesthetic practice (Barcelona: Gustavo Gili SL, 2009).
6. Tim Ingold, Lines. A Brief History (New York: Routledge, 2007), 42.
7. Elizabeth Waylan Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 years. Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994).
8. Hemp, sisal and jute are other types of natural fibers used in the manufacture of ropes, and they were introduced to Europe during the colonization of India, Bangladesh (hemp and jute), the Caribbean Islands, Mexico and Brazil (sisal). These countries are still the manufacturing centers of these fibers, and the “western world” is still the main consumer of them.
9. Machacado literally means crushed or mashed. When the esparto needs a lot of manual work, the fibers are crushed between two stones to make them more flexible, soft and avoid cuts on the hands while working with them.
10. Astrida Neimanis, Bodies of Water. Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 136.
11. Kirsten Algera, and Ernst van der Hoeven, “Follow the Rope” McGuffin. The life of things no. 3, The Rope (2016/2017), 175-188.