Documents: Tidalectics

Eduardo Navarro, Hydrohexagrams (For Tahuata), 2017. Installation view as part of Tidalectics at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna, 2017. Photo by Jorit Aust.


Introduction to Tidalectics

by Stefanie Hessler


In a conversation at the ArtReview Bar in November 2018 the curator and writer Stefanie Hessler joined the academic Sam Solnick to consider how new ideas around ecological systems, and human engagements with the environment, are feeding into the practice of contemporary art and writing. To complement the talk, we are pleased to republish the foreword to Hessler’s  Tidalectics. Imagining an Oceanic Worldview through Art and Science (published by the MIT Press in 2018). The text introduces ‘tidalectics’ as a new way of figuring our relationship to the world as we live in it, and accompanies a show of the same name at TBA21 in Vienna. A video of the talk can be accessed here




Tidalectics is an experiment to formulate an oceanic worldview, a different way of engaging with the oceans and the world we inhabit. Unbound by land-based modes of thinking and living, the exhibition and the book are reflective of the rhythmic fluidity of water and the incessant swelling and receding of the tides. Tidalectics emerges from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21)–Academy, a site of cultural production without a fixed locale, moving aboard the Dardanella research vessel, temporarily inhabited by artists, scientists, and other thinkers and practitioners. The voyages have led us to some of the most remote places in the Pacific—Papua New Guinea, French Polynesia, Fiji, and Tonga—as well as to Iceland, North America, and the Caribbean. It is through the Academy’s journeys, friendships, curiosity, and its collective processes of learning and sharing of ideas that Tidalectics came into being.


The project takes its title from a play on words by the celebrated Barbadian poet and historian Kamau Braithwaite. With Tidalectics, Brathwaite crystallizes our terrestrial “obsession for fixity, assuredness, and appropriation”[1] and mirrors instead the fluctuating tides, the rhythmic soundings of the waves, and their curling ripples as they wash onto the shores. If dialectics is the way that “Western philosophy has assumed people’s lives should be,”[2] then Tidalectics involves a range of different readings and interpretations—for water is a transitory element, and a “being dedicated to water is a being in flux.”[3] Brathwaite’s poetry radiates with music and rhythm. It is crafted on “riddims” that are deeply rooted in (post-)colonial anger and hope. A key thinker of creolization, Brathwaite makes us aware that hybridization is not restricted to land, but begins in maritime spaces and at the coast. Just like navigators who land at a new shore, bringing with them their living and constantly shifting stories, myths, and beliefs, the concept of Tidalectics can migrate from its original context in Brathwaite’s writing to other geographies and realms. The exhibition and the book carefully transfer the term, mindful not to obscure its specificity but considering the notion as starting point for an oceanic worldview.


Tidalectics merges the anchored with the itinerant and moves back and forth between being waterborne and touching land. It allows us to think of hybridity, cross-cultural syncretism, incompleteness, and fragmentation. The influence of the ocean is not restricted to the waters and aquatic beings, it affects land and terrestrial life just as much—as a source of food and as a threat when sea levels rise. The exhibition seeks to comprehend our histories as trajectories tossed by waves, from ocean crossings to systems of exchange, myths, and microbial origins. It highlights processes of cultural adaptation and material change, presenting a rich framework for understanding the coalescing polarities of contemporaneity and history, science and poetics, the global and the local, routes and roots, and ourselves with the oceans and their many and diverse inhabitants.


If our thoughts and actions fail to grasp these vast bodies of water that cover two thirds of our planet, let alone take care of them, perhaps it is time to consider other, oceanic, ways of being. Tidalectics sets out to do exactly that.


The exhibition Tidalectics was shown at TBA21–Augarten in Vienna, Austria in 2017. In 2018, an adapted version of the exhibition, titled Oceans, travelled to Le Fresnoy in Tourcoing, France and to the Museum of Modern Art in Dubrovnik as well as the 1483 Monastery in Lopud, Croatia.






[1] Franco Cassano, Southern Thought and Other Essays on the Mediterranean (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 18

[2] Kamau Brathwaite, ConVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey (New York: We Press, 1999), 34

[3] Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter (Dallas: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1999 [1942]), 6