A Place for Relating to Water

Underbellies of pennywort in Large Aquarium

This piece appears in the Are.na Annual 2021, themed “tend.”

Sitting at a desk in my bedroom-office-gym-lounge-library-garden, I peer through two windows every day: one that opens into the hyperlinked lilypads of the Internet, and another that leads into the fuzzy arms of hornwort and rotala. I hunch over both these windows, observing meticulously, responding promptly—“yes, 11AM EST works for me”—trimming incessantly, and most of the time, straining to see. Clusters of salvinia minima float behind staggering layers of pages and windows, roots intermingling with tabs. On the days that I teach, a small school of neon tetra huddles around a Zoom matrix of sleepy students—all curious, a little nervous, and vying for attention from the other side of glass.

I started two aquariums around the same time shelter-in-place began in New York, fueled by a longing for company, and perhaps a deeper desire to control my environment in the midst of chaos. The Small Tank is a four gallon low-tech aquarium that currently houses the “Dippin’ Dots” (three Endler guppies), PS413 (seven Neon Tetras), and a rotating cast of decorative shrimp (Amano, Blue Velvet, Orange Sakura, Red Rili). The tank sits immediately behind my laptop, and poses as a respite for moments spent idle in virtual waiting rooms. The Large Tank is a 40 gallon filtered aquarium home to a (growing) family of red swordtails, one very young and paranoid iridescent shark, and one juvenile mystery fish.1

Historically, humans have invented many ways to recreate environments to fit within our own scales and bounds. The creation of the Wardian case to transport plant specimens from various parts of the world solidified the terrarium as an early instrument of colonialism and environmental exploitation. Later, as fish-tending for food and entertainment around the world moved from ponds to glass boxes, what was considered a serendipitous, specific, balanced life cycle of oxygen, ammonia, nitrite/nitrates, and carbon dioxide, became a popular human pastime in simulating ideal conditions for non-human life.

The cosmology of ‘-ariums’ we have built—terrariums, vivariums, planetariums, aquariums, paludariums, ripariums…spell out a technique to comprehend ecosystems by reducing the dimensionality of ecology into controllable scales. We view “-ariums” to be objective section cuts of ecological phenomena; however, our attempts at control also write our presence inextricably into the equation of ideal life conditions that we’re trying to understand. The technology that recreates the conditions for plants and animals, in its simultaneous offering of life, also forks the milieu of non-human environments from their dependence on the specificities of place. Aquariums are not the blackwater streams of the Amazon Basin, and cannot replace the real concerns of that scale. In “On Exactitude of Science,” Jorge Luis Borges warns that in our quest to map the empire in its infinite detail, the map will eventually cover the entire empire itself. Likewise, carefully curated ‘-ariums’ can be misconstrued for the reality of ecosystems themselves; just like how the constructed nature of environmental knowledge can be often misconstrued as the environment itself. 

A member of “Dippin’ Dots” meandering in the Small Aquarium

As I describe these ‘-ariums’, I sit with the fact that an aquarium is not independent from me. It’s an environment in which water, plants, and fish are kept in a delicate balance that is reliant on my attendance and calculations; a place for relating to water, and a space to tend to my own ‘reciprocal responsibilities’ to beings beyond myself. We too, in our hubris of conceiving ourselves being outside of any ‘-arium,’ also rely on a vast combination of ideal conditions. As Zoe Todd, a Métis anthropologist, quotes Leroy Little Bear,2 

We as humans live in a very narrow spectrum of ideal conditions. Those ideal conditions have to be there for us to exist. That’s why it’s very important to talk about ecology, the relationship. If those ideal conditions are not there, you and I are not going to last for very long.

Fish tending is part of my paternal family history—my first years of existence were spent watching my grandfather’s prized silver Arowana slither back and forth in the living room aquarium, its body folding perfectly when it U-turns in the tank, which in comparison, seemed just barely large enough for the giant to do a short lap. My father and uncle recall having to evacuate their home when they were young due to an earthquake, and they both broke curfew by returning home to make sure their swordtails in labor weren’t eating their young. As I ease my breath into a meditative state of algae cleaning, I’d like to think that aquariums are also a place to relate to my father. He no longer tends to aquariums, but demands shrimp updates from me periodically. My family immigrated to Canada very early on, and I, like a sapling carefully transferred by my parents, was forked into a whole other set of ‘ideal conditions’ that I have learned to adapt to. In that way, I very much relate to the transplant-upbringing of mystery fish.

Zooming out, the aquarium is also an analogy for how humans understand ecological relationships: The climate catastrophe can be seen as the result of humans forcing the timescale of the world to match our own. By making ecosystems legible to ourselves, we also take agential non-human beings out of their intended timescales, breaking up rhythms, flows and intimacies that they have established with place. And as Adrian Lahoud outlines in the scales of scientific inquiry diagram,3 when we delineate knowledge production into scalar categories, we also embed our “social, political, and economic decisions to orient scientific attention in one direction over another.” In other words, it’s because coral reef bleaching and glacier melts have sped up to occur within human lifetimes that we are able to observe and understand the precarious balance between global ocean temperature rise and marine ecosystems. This reciprocal process reveals the limits of our scalar understanding, especially when we’re confronted by concerns with amorphous scalar boundaries, such as climate change. Scalar relationships come at a cost. 

Bits of aquarium scum, starter pack for a new world

And yet to tend to something is a way to share scale, and to share scale is to understand. Zoe Todd reminds us that if we propel towards extinction, it would be because we forgot to tend to our own narrow conditions of existence, forgot “to tend to relationships, to ceremony (in all the plurality of ways this may be enacted), [and] to the continuous co-constitution of life-worlds between humans and others.” Cultivating a place to relate to non-human beings can nurture our abilities to comprehend scales beyond our own. It doesn’t need to be extravagant. Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests that just by “looking at mosses adds a depth and intimacy of knowing the forest,”4 and for me, the ritual of daily aquarium maintenance is a staple between my scalar landscape and theirs. As much as we would like to think that we can vibe with the experience of non-human beings, sometimes I feel the best I can do is to get close, observe, and smell the pond scum.

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[1] By way of some plants in overnight delivery, mystery fish appeared in my tank and made it pretty far from home while still an egg.

[2] Todd, Zoe. “Fish, Kin and Hope: Tending to Water Violations in amiskwaciwâskahikan and Treaty Six Territory.” Afterall: A Journal of Art Context and Enquiry, 43, 102-107.

[3] Lahoud, Adrian. “Scale as Problem, Architecture as Trap.” Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary. Lars Müller Publishers: Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2016.

[4] Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Oregon State University Press. 2003.

Lucy Siyao Liu is an artist and designer based in New York. Liu is a co-director of studio PROPS.SUPPLY, as well as PROPS PAPER, a publication on image culture and technology. Her work addresses the myriad of human systems devised in the past and present to comprehend scales of ecology. She researches, writes, and teaches topics on imaging technologies, machine learning, computational design and architecture. Liu received a post-professional research degree from MIT, and has held teaching positions at various institutions.