Pip Wallis, Mimosa Echard: Immanence and Living Water. Palais no. 33 (2022)

I surround myself with carnivorous plants and legendary animals, all bathed in the coarse and twisted oblique light of a mythical sex. I proceed in an intuitive way and without seeking an idea: I am organic. And I don’t question myself about my motives. I plunge into the almost pain of an intense happiness—and to adorn me leaves and branches spring up in my hair.1 — Clarice Lispector, Água Viva

The player of Mimosa Echard’s video game Sporal is immersed within a monocellular organism where fluids are exchanged to trigger perpetual transformation: eating water droplets initiates an environmental evolution, a seahorse requires the fluids from flowers to give birth to the ocean, a snake emerges conjured by falling tears.

These hydrological shifts reflect the sporification cycle of myxomycetes, sometimes called slime moulds, a vast family of around 900 species that emerged in evolution more than 1.5 billion years ago. Myxomycetes were formally misclassified as fungi but eliding traditional biology categories are now understood to be Protista; neither animal, plant, nor fungus, but flaunting characteristics of all. They are an organism which can live freely as single cells but can aggregate together to form multinucleated reproductive structures and move as a single body. In this form they change shape and the function of their parts, going from slimy masses to stalks with fruiting nodes. These nodes break open to release spores in the process of reproduction, accumulating many hundreds of sexual types through the transfer and multiplication of genetic information within its single cell.

As in Echard’s earlier painting and sculptural work, Sporal makes “an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries” to quote Donna Haraway.2 Authorial boundaries are also dissolved with the creation of the work through the collaboration of programmer Andréa and artist, writer, and musician Aodhan Madden, among others.

To interpret myself and formulate me I need new signs and new articulations in shapes found on this side and beyond my human story. I transfigure reality and then another dreaming and sleepwalking reality, creates me.3

Progressing through the three worlds of the game—the garden, the room in Tokyo, and the beach at night—what is at stake here is not only the relationship between human and non-human life but the relationship between matter and cybernetics.

The idea that the Real is mediated by culture for our parsing is an idealistic position which pitches artificial realms against natural reality, as though nature is stable and enduring. “The assumption seems to be that if the ground isn’t solid and fixed, then it isn’t a ground— if it moves and changes, then it must be the mere representation of a ground.”4 Vicki Kirby instead argues for an inseparability between substance and representation which rewrites causality in the relationship between nature and the experience of it. It’s a position that understands the very tissue of substance, the ground of Being, as a mutable intertext since as Jacques Derrida notes, “the most elementary processes within a living cell” are also a “writing.”5 The cell both writes and is written in a continuous co-production. By embracing this symbiotic relationship as a material and poetic device, and by fusing the cellular and the imaginative, the material and the virtual, Echard meddles with perceived divisions of nature and culture. Sporal proposes not an immutable nature that is “just as it is,” but matter that is capricious and constantly re-written.

Eco-queer and cyberfeminist writers of the late 20th century demonstrated the liberatory importance of dissolving the nature/culture binary which excluded non-masculine subjects in a misplaced veneration of essentialist naturalism. Even though the once-imagined transgressive potential of video games and the internet to challenge societal confines and economic imperatives remains unfulfilled, coding and writing a video game into being nevertheless continues to be an act of poiesis. Andréa’s skill in the creation of the game world, in generating the texture and scenography of its various stages, speaks of a long investment in the liberatory space of gaming as it releases us from temporal and spatial constraints. Worlding, as the word is used in posthumanist thought, shifts the world from a being to an active doing. Importantly the worlding of Sporal alerts us to the creative capacity not only of a human coder but all matter by recognising the co-writing capacity of cells.

The cyborg, Haraway argues, is “a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation”.6 It facilitates our haptic encounter with the possibility that desire and imagination can indeed create new relationships to our own bodies, as well as a new understanding of how the body can be collectively imagined. The high-key colours and vivid patterns of digital imaging make the game sensorially overwhelming. We see objects from nature rendered descriptively yet colluding with one another to achieve a never-clarified sense of elemental intertwining. Much like the collages of Dada and Surrealism, this rupture in our visual field awakens the subconscious mind and its capability for fruitful, associative dreaming. As we move through the glowing sporous canyons this visual delirium induces a hallucinatory experience in which new states of being are possible; seahorses weep and sounds become nectar through synesthetic radio waves.

I am inside the great dreams of the night [...] and am also my slow evolution that throws itself like a drawbridge into a future whose milky fogs I already breathe today.7

Echard’s game evokes a series of textual references to folktales as spaces of fruitful imagining and material possibility. The sorceress and the evil sovereign in Hans Christen Andersen’s The Snow Queen, and the girl-snake in the Japanese folktale of Anchin and Kiyohime, are feminine figures who have a relationship with natural processes outside the confines of productivity and civic order.

In both stories the protagonist is carried by water, specifically a flowing river, in their pursuit of love. The rushing, never-still water effects a change not simply of location but of state. For Kiyohime the water transforms her into a dragon, a creature of uncontained rage. In The Snow Queen Gerda’s passage on a river brings her to a state of receptiveness where she can understand the speech of flowers and crows. This radical sensitivity in a watery realm might describe the Oceanic Feeling. Articulated by writer and mystic Romain Rolland in his letters to Sigmund Freud, this is the “feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole.”8 Rolland experienced this as a spiritual sense of immanence, a state in which the transcendent and material are indivisible. The continuous virtual lands of the video game could be likened to Gilles Deleuze’s conception of the metaphysical plane of immanence, a non-hierarchical continuity where dualities (between say, mind and body) and distinctions (between interior or exterior for instance) are flattened.

Now I shall speak of the sadness of flowers so as to feel more of the order of whatever exists. Before I do, I’ll give you the nectar with pleasure, sweet juice that many flowers contain and that insects seek with greed.9

In her book Água Viva, Clarice Lispector experiences an immanence with various beings including a cut rose which lasts an unusual amount of time and a wild horse in a field at night. She spends a long languorous passage contemplating the characteristics and associations of various flowers in turn; carnation, sunflower, violet, golden everlasting, orchid, tulip, cornflower, angelica, jasmine, bird-of-paradise, night jessamine, geranium, water lily, and chrysanthemum. This floral communing mirrors the experience of Gerda in The Snow Queen, who becomes trapped in a garden where flowers speak. She addresses each one in turn; orange lily, convolvulus, snow drop, hyacinth, buttercup, narcissus. Just as in Água Viva it’s the rose which effects a transformation. Crying about her lost friend, Gerda’s tears fall onto the earth and rouse the buried rose bush from where it was hidden by a sorceress.

Andersen published The Snow Queen in 1844. Twenty-seven years later in 1871 Lewis Carroll published Through the Looking Glass which also features talking flowers. Both works of the Romantic literary movement of the 19th century, they reflect the fascination for the supernatural and the uncanny which, as artistic devices, provided space for possibilities dismissed by the empiricism of the preceding Enlightenment. In the Romantic imagination an affective relationship bound the interior life of the subject and the activities of nature; a kind of exteriorisation of the interior. Jacques Lacan uses extimacy to describe the subject as outside of itself; the other is “something strange to me, although it is at the heart of me.”10 We exist not only inside ourselves but intersubjectively and outside the self: ex-centrically.

Echard demonstrates we are not ex-centric only in psychoanalytic terms but indeed we “out of body” in very material ways. Flowers talk when sending messages to one another by releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. Each compound is made of a variety of chemicals, with every chemical sending a different message. This language is much like the communication of myxomycetes. They have been observed navigating space, committing this knowledge to memory and passing it on to others. In doing so they catch us, in our anthropocentric arrogance, misunderstanding biological intelligence. We cannot claim ownership of practices such as decision making, recollection, and communication, yet we describe these practices through our human languages. How to speak with flowers? We move through Sporal trying to parse a non-humancentric language, a communal tongue of synesthetic signs, sounds and liquids. It is not a matter of translation between languages at all, but of a shared glossolalia.

Romanticism took a nostalgic shine to the medieval period in reaction to the industrialization of their own era and the reign of rationalism handed down from the preceding age of Enlightenment. In the Romantic imagination the medieval period was one in which the mysteries of nature and humanity were afforded wonderment beyond mercantilism. In his 1820 poem To a Skylark, Percy Bysshe Shelley compares the skylark to a rose whose perfume intoxicates the bees and asks that the bird give the poet its unique song-speak. He writes “We look before and after / And pine for what is not,” thirsting not only for the past and future but for something else altogether. In Echard’s work we are suspended between folktales and speculative mythologies as she moves us simultaneously into the past and the future but with a knowing eye on the snares of nostalgia and escapism. The work perceives and plays with the scientific knowledge of myxomycetes, calling the sanctity of this knowledge into question, in an equivocal frolic between a philosophy of science and one of mysticism.

My state is that of a garden with running water.11

In Sporal the appearance of fluids—water droplets, tears, rose oil, orchid sweat, butterfly tree mucus, and ocean—heralds an environmental transformation. These aqueous shifts progress the player through the game’s levels, which each correspond to a stage in the myxomycetes’ life cycle. From the humid slippery expansion stage to a reflective state of viscose lubrication, and finally to a dry period of sporification.

“Water flows through and across difference. Water does not ask us to confirm either the irreducibility of alterity or material connection. Water flows between, as both: a new hydro-logic,” writes Astrida Neimanis.12 She points out that all of the water that was ever on this planet is still here—no more, no less. In this way water not only crosses space but also time, bringing us into communion with the deepest past and future of the Earth.

The Portuguese title of Lispector’s Água Viva translates literally as “living water,” which reflects the stream of consciousness that flows through the text (which was titled Beyond Thought in early drafts). To a Brazilian reader the title would have initially indicated jellyfish, which is not irrelevant, but Lispector said “I preferred Água Viva, a thing that bubbles. At the source.”13 And the text does bubble in an ecstatic tessellation of eros, life, death, animality and transcendence. Lispector uses language like a crowbar which unsettles the contradictions of living and dying, sensing and cognition, care and ambivalence. She uses writing as a means of undertaking a psychological risk, much like in her text The Passion According to G.H. in which the narrator consumes a cockroach in order to grapple with ego-dissolution. Reading her is to be stripped of your shell and to experience with raw nerves the horrifying and dazzling Real.

Água Viva was first translated into French in 1980 by Hélène Cixous who herself wrote “I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs. Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst.”[^14] Cixous explored the heterogeneous subject, the “plus-je,” and wrote about milk and liquid as a textual device, as a linguistic expression for the boundarylessness and excessivity of poiesis.14 In Cixous’ practice of écriture, the body writes; women must urgently learn to speak the marvellous text of her self.Sporal writes/codes the excessivity of myxomycetes’ hundreds of sexes and we learn to speak that text with the help of nonhuman agents. In doing so we move outside of the gendered body, outside of écriture féminine, into écriture cellulaire. We might ask, isn’t this a field of materiality rather than writing? After all, myxomycetes grow and spore. But during that process their cells write themselves into proliferation. If cells write themselves, then they can write themselves into the “what is not.” The logic of game design is speculativeplenty, since any space can be extended, any pattern continued, any image multiplied. In this way coding is a form of writing which, like the writing of cells, produces poetic excess.

The game ends as the player enters a huge open mouth, a beckoning cave which receives liquid, creates language, secretes corrosive saliva, and is an organ of insatiable erotic hunger.

I want inside this night that is longer than life, I want, inside this night, life raw and bloody and full of saliva.15

  1. Clarice Lispector, Água Viva, Benjamin Moser (ed.), Stefan Tobler (trans.) (New York: New Directions Publishing, 2012), 17. First published in Portuguese in Brazil, 1973. 

  2. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism
    in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 150. 

  3. Clarice Lispector, op. cit., 15–16. 

  4. Vicki Kirby, Telling Flesh: The Substance of the Corporal (London/New York: Routledge, 1997), 61. 

  5. Jacques Derrida, quoted in: Vicki Kirby, op. cit., 61. 

  6. Donna Haraway, op. cit., 150. 

  7. Clarice Lispector, op. cit., 17–18. 

  8. Romain Rolland, quoted in Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents,
    James Strachey (trans.) (Norton, New York, 1962, pp. 11–12. 

  9. Clarice Lispector, op. cit., 49 

  10. Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959–1960: The Seminar
    of Jacques Lacan, Book VII, Dennis Porter (trans.) (London: Routledge, 1992), 71. 

  11. Clarice Lispector, op. cit., 11. 

  12. Astrida Neimanis, “Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water,”
    in Henriette Gunkel, Chrysanthi Nigianni, and Fanny Söderbäck (eds.), Undutiful Daughters: New Directions in Feminist Thought and Practice (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 85.  

  13. Benjamin Moser, “Introduction: Breathing Together,” in Clarice Lispector, op. cit., xiii. 14 Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa” [1975], in Elaine Marks and
    Isabelle de Courtivron (eds), New French Feminisms: An Anthology (Brighton:
    Harvester Press, 1985), 246. 

  14. Brian Duren, “Cixous’ Exorbitant Texts,” Substance, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1981, 39–51. 

  15. Clarice Lispector, op. cit., 18.