Red-gold algae could be a climate saviour if protected, artists say

Morocco's sustainable material is the focus of an art exhibit in London

"Evanescence" by Ismail Zaidy and Fatima Zhora Serri, two out of six artists based in the UK and Morocco who took place in an art and research residency exploring the ecology and ethics of harvesting red algae. Photo: P21 Gallery
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The mineral-rich seaweed found on the shores of El Jadida on Morocco's Atlantic coast is often referred to as red gold, a label referring to its colour as well as its increasing popularity and scarcity.

The algae is used to produce "agar-agar", a natural gelling agent popular in culinary circles, particularly as a vegan substitute. It is also used in pharmacology and cosmetics.

However, as the demand for sustainable materials grows in the West, and world leaders seek answers at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow, Morocco’s coasts hare increasingly over-exploited.

An art exhibition in London is shedding light on technology’s role in mitigating the damage caused by the excessive harvesting of algae in Morocco.

This worrying concern was the subject of a three-month research and artistic residency run by A.Mal, an artistic research collective, with two UK-based artists and three Morocco-based artists. Funded by the British Council Morocco and Arts Council England, the collaborative project used the algae to explore ecology and ethics in global relations.

'Evanescence' by Ismail Zaidy and Fatima Zhora Serri,photographers based in Marrakech, Morocco. Photo: Youcef Hadjazi

The results of the collaboration are now on display at the P21 Gallery in London and will be followed by a series of online events throughout November called Red-Gold Reflections in partnership with Dardishi – a not-for-profit community arts project that showcases the cultural production of Arab and North African women and gender minorities in Glasgow – and Creative Scotland.

Curator Jessica El Mal told The National the residency was born out of the British Council Morocco’s celebration of three centuries of trade relations between the Maghreb and the UK.

“Despite this 300-year-old relationship, I have often felt the need for more exchange and more collaboration – especially in relation to ecology and climate justice,” said the English and Moroccan artist.

“Using algae is a way into thinking about the relationship between these two locations and what this means for the earth, the sea, society."

Having twice hosted the Conference of the Parties, in Marrakech in 2001 and 2016, Morocco has long shown its commitments to tackling climate concerns.

As it looks to implement a green and inclusive economy by 2030, the North African country has implemented a number of ambitious sustainability projects, including solar and wind power plants, and has pledged to upgrade its energy system by channelling 52 per cent of its energy consumption from renewable sources.

In June, the European Union and the Kingdom of Morocco announced a Green Partnership, aimed at strengthening their co-operation in the fight against climate change, with the first results of the work to be presented during Cop26. At the time, Morocco also put forward an enhanced and more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution to reach a 45.5 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Sustainability is as much a part of climate concerns as reducing emissions, but in the rush to find alternative renewable materials there are new worries over their over-use.

Red algae, known as agar, is one of the main industries in Morocco's coastal towns but the frenzied harvesting of this aquatic plant is endangering the ecological balance of the region and there are concerns about the exploitation of workers too, who are often paid very little for the seasonal work. AFP

Morocco has long been a key algae exporter and topped the global producers' list, but concerns over long-term damage from over-harvesting led authorities there to enact protective measures, including setting prices and quotas.

The Red Gold Exhibition provides several lenses through which to address and question the issue with a body of work that includes essay films, recorded performances, sound installation, and photography.

Sabrina Mumtaz Hasan, one of the UK-based artists involved in the collaborative project, works with scripted text, sculpture, performance and moving image. Her practice is stimulated by her writings on materialising the positive aspects of a parasite, working against the pejorative perception of parasite-host relationships, particularly in the context of immigrants and refugees.

She told The National she was drawn to the residency because of the overlapping focuses on ecology, migration and sustainability.

"Agar-Agar was promoted as a replacement for gelatine and as bioplastics in design and was meant to be more sustainable, but it is also problematic because there isn’t really a ‘golden product’ that solves environmental problems," Ms Mumtaz Hasan says.

Sabrina Mumtaz Hasan is a British artist who works with scripted text, sculpture, performance and moving image. She is one of six artists who took part in the three-month residency exploring the effects of harvesting the mineral-rich red algae seaweed from Morocco. Photo: P21 Gallery

Often so-called solutions can create new problems, she says, including the exploitation of the labourers who harvest the precious plant for very little money during seasonal periods.

Channelling her scepticism through an artistic audio piece called On Blooming and On Fleeing, Ms Mumtaz Hasan took a critical look at two biotechnology companies that are farming the plant as a means of countering over-exploitation.

UK-based Susewi has been developing a method to lab-produce micro-algae before going on to replicate algal bloom in large outdoor ponds.

In 2017 the company, together with its partner Plymouth University, was awarded £560,000 ($763,951) by Innovate UK to support the development of its technology and the building of a large-scale project to grow the nutrient-rich species of microalgae.

Built on three hectares of government-owned land outside the town of Akhfennir in Morocco, the pilot plant completed in 2019 and became the largest single algae pond in the world, measuring 8,000 square metres in area and 4,000 cubic metres in volume. The Moroccan government has since allocated more than 6,000 hectares of non-arable land to another plant to boost production.

As part of her artistic research, Ms Mumtaz Hasan visited Susewi’s labs and saw first-hand the incubators and drying processes used to turn micro algae into macro algae.

“They’re working with single-cells to multiply them, which takes out the need to harvest from the sea,” says Ms Mumtaz Hasan, who is an associate lecturer on the MA Art and Science course at Central St Martins.

Transferring the large farms to Morocco afterwards is also much more supportive to the country than simply snatching its resources.

Beyond the rapid growth of a sustainable material, she says the lab technicians she spoke to were quite clear that tackling climate change was one of their main reasons for developing the technology.

'On Blooming and on Fleeing' is a sound installation and performance script including parts of interviews the artist had with the algae lab researchers. Sabrina Mumtaz Hasan built the speakers herself, and branded them and the science lab stools to give audiences the feeling of being in the lab. Photo: P21 Gallery

According to founding chief executive Keith Coleman, who set up Susewi with Raffael Jovine in 2013, with ambitions to turn the company into “the world’s largest producer of algal biomass”, microalgae are the “most successful organisms on the planet.” They grow 10 times faster than terrestrial plants and absorb exponentially more CO2 than trees. Their ability to grow on non-arable land while also converting sunlight into food far more efficiently than cultivable crops further bolsters their environmentally friendly credentials.

Another UK-based lab doing something similar is the Algal Innovation Centre at the University of Cambridge. The London-based artist said she had been impressed by the low-cost waste flow and feeding system that has their algae fed by fruit and vegetable waste from the local supermarket.

By treating the places as “case studies” forming part of her audio art, Ms Mumtaz Hasan said her aim was to highlight the sensitivity, ecologically and economically, of working with this organism.

“I was quite sceptical when I went to speak to both labs but this process has been very enlightening,” and ultimately positive, she says.

Her visit to Susewi’s lab ended with a look at the vials of algae-oils, pigments, and β-keratin, showcasing the health benefits of the organism, one of the potentially most commercially lucrative aspects to its production.

It all comes together in her sculptural sound installation and performance script that includes snippets of her interview with the scientists. As the caption alongside it reads, it is: "a collaborative, critical and widened discussion to consider climate change and sustainable practices of what it means to be a thoughtful, beneficial and contributing human".

Humanity changing its behaviour to benefit the climate is ultimately what the hopes for Cop26 are. If they fail to do so in the conference rooms of Glasgow, they may yet find inspiration in a gallery in London.

The Red Gold Exhibition at P21 Gallery runs until November 6.

The series of Red Gold Reflection online events will take place throughout November and can be accessed through Dardishi.

Updated: November 07, 2021, 2:30 PM