For the Web Residencies by Solitude on the topic »Muntu Maxims« artist Marie-Eve Levasseur makes visible the unrecognized work of the brewsters, alewives, and other women who brew for their kin to survive. Her project Brewing Symbiotic Care: Feeding and Nurturing a Fungi Cyborg Feminist Future consists in a 3D world, a futurist brewery where plants, microorganisms (yeast), machines, and human beings are working in symbiosis. Read an interview with the artist.
Borne of the flowing water,
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,
Borne of the flowing water,
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag.
These are the first lines of one of the oldest beer recipes of the world – the hymn to Ninkasi. First written on a stone tablet around 1800 B.C., it emerges from an oral tradition of brewing beer across Mesopotamia. Its origins lay in the hands of women and dates to 3,500–3,100 B.C. As Marie-Eve and I meet to discuss her contribution to the Muntu Maxims Web Residency call, we sip on her home-brewed beer, which miraculously found its way from Leipzig to my studio at Akademie Schloss Solitude. The artist has been brewing since around 2018. The Sour Brewster ale that we drink during this interview is based on the Gose beer style from the medieval German town of Goslar. It is the first beer Marie-Eve brewed with a new kind of knowledge, namely that her passion for brewing is actually deeply rooted in a long-forgotten and erased history of female brewers.
Mara-Johanna Kölmel: Brewing Symbiotic Care, the project you have developed for this Web Residency, takes the hymn to Ninkasi as its starting point. Ninkasi is the ancient Sumerian goddess of beer and her hymn the very first recipe for brewing beer. Women brewed beer nearly exclusively across Mesopotamia until the rise of the Roman Empire. The Egyptians worshipped a beer goddess named Tenenet. In Baltic and Slavic mythology, one finds goddess Raugutiene, who provided protection over beer. The Finnish tell the legend of a woman by the name of Kalevatar, who invented beer by mixing honey with bear saliva. From the Viking era in Scandinavia until the Middle Ages, women continued to be the primary producers of beer in northern Europe. Could you tell us about this important framework for your work and how it links but also expands on this forgotten history?
Marie-Eve Levasseur: Well, I am a brewster myself ((Brewster is the forgotten name for female brewer. See also braciatrices, pandoxatrices, and braceresses in: Judith M. Bennett: Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England, Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600. New York 1996.)) and, before last summer, I was completely unaware of the essential and crucial role women once played in beer production. I was shocked to learn how easy manipulating history seems to be. To me it also made total sense that women presided over the birth of beer, supervising the fermentation process and providing friends and relatives with their healthy and nutritious beverage.
In early civilizations, as water was often dangerous to drink, beer remained a trusted necessity, and brewing a daily ritual for the survival of the species. Goddesses associated with beer were often also associated with birth and healing. So beer history has also a lot to do with health care and a knowledge of medicinal herbs, plants, and spices. Sumerian beer would often contain herbs that were found in ancient medical remedies. The hymn to Ninkasi is a recipe that is poetry as well as instructions, one that was most probably sung by the brewers while working, honoring the oral tradition of knowledge transmission. Ninkasi is the beer goddess but also the beer itself. For this Web Residency project, I am rewriting this hymn, updating it to a modern language and modernizing its ingredients, images, and processes while trying to keep the poetic and repetitive flow. I want this hymn to pay homage to all the brewsters, priestesses, and witches from the past.
Mara-Johanna Kölmel: Your Web Residency work mirrors these entangled histories using visual means. The visitor finds herself in a sci-fi laboratory, a futuristic brewery with a brewer’s kettle, floating yeast, vases that resemble stone tablets, and a broomstick as alestake over the entrance. One might also think of a witch’s workshop. Some sources suggest that the history of brewing and witchcraft may intersect. I’m curious to find out more about this history, and how it perhaps also marks the brewing’s shift from a predominantly female to a male practice.
Marie-Eve Levasseur: A later history of beer, especially in medieval England, mentions the figure of the alewife, one that is not easy to separate from the figure of the witch: she brewed with a cauldron, often needed the company of a cat to keep the stored sacks of grains safe from mice, used a broom as an alestake over her door to indicate beer surplus to sell, and wore a conical black, sometimes pointed hat on market days to be recognized from afar as a beer seller.
((Riley Winters: »Bubbling Brews and Broomsticks: How Alewives Became the Stereotypical Witch,« in: Ancient Origins, August 1, 2017, https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/bubbling-brews-and-broomsticks-how-alewives-became-stereotypical-witch-021539; Addison Nugent: »For Centuries, Alewives Dominated the Brewing Industry,« in: Gastro Obscura, August 17, 2018, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/women-making-beer (accessed December 9, 2020).))
According to some historians, the witch hunts of the Middle Ages represent the moment where women were gradually pushed away from the beer business.
((Theresa A. Vaughan: »The Alewife: Changing images and bad brews,« in: AVISTA Forum Journal Vol. 21 Number ½ (2012), pp. 34–41 https://www.academia.edu/3428837/The_Alewife_Changing_Images_and_Bad_Brews (accessed December 9, 2020).))
»Guilds formed and as a result, women were increasingly pushed out of their traditional roles as brewing became a higher status, more desirable, and better paid position. While this process occurred gradually and differed in temporal and geographical contexts, by 1700, women were by and large pushed out of brewing. […] In response to this, or perhaps parallel to this process, female brewers, braciatrices, became vilified. Not only were they depicted as purveyors of the mortal sins of gluttony and lust, they were also believed to be wholly incapable of brewing. They were, as a group, cheaters, liars, and completely untrustworthy – selling beer in illegal measures and doctoring their ale with various nefarious ingredients. They were portrayed in art and literature as prostitutes, procuresses, and sexual deviants. And somewhere, somewhere at the crossroads of greed and misogyny, these charges became even more sinister, and perhaps even deadly. Alewives could be associated with witches.«
((See Dr. Christina Wade’s blog braciatrix.com: https://braciatrix.com/2017/05/24/featured-content-3/ (accessed December 9, 2020).))
With the Inquisition from the Catholic Church, general oppression and marginalization of women were highly common. Especially women with knowledge of plants and herbs, a potential financial autonomy due to selling their own beer, and the fact that the brewsters would supervise a bubbling brew that, after fermentation, could cause someone to lose control after drinking it, it was easy to see some devil’s magic in there.
Mara-Johanna Kölmel: So the history of beer making speaks at the same time of a history of erasure of female influence. This in turn reminds me of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Here he writes that presences and absences of history »are neither neutral or natural. They are created. As such they are not mere presences or absences, but mentions and silences of various kinds of degrees.«
((Michel-Rolph Trouillot: Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Boston 1995, p. 48.))
Why do you feel the digital medium is a suitable medium to tackle such silences of history?
Marie-Eve Levasseur: A very recent erasure, yes. Those presences and absences in history definitely are the product of a situated production of knowledge. Mostly situated in patriarchy. That’s very problematic, and it is something we cannot »erase« from the past way of telling history, but we can certainly transform and expand it in the future. To those old ways of mentioning only that what once was considered relevant (values that fortunately tend to shift over time), we can add a knowledge that is situated elsewhere in the now with the voices we have, mentioning stories we consider important today and people who are missing in history and storytelling. I’m not an historian, and I can’t pretend to know how that should be done, but as an artist, I am able to make things visible. I wasn’t aware of that almost untold history until I made my own research. It is also through the Internet that I found scientific as well as mainstream articles that informed my project, along with my own experience in brewing. A combination of digital and material translations are necessary here. I see the digital medium as perfect for spreading knowledge and make alternate narratives accessible. There are advantages in using our networks to fill gaps from the past, but there are materials that are more sustainable in time, that can be found again in the future and that we or others might be able to decode better than old rusty hard drives (like the 4,000 year-old cuneiform clay tablets that allowed us to translate the Hymn to Ninkasi, for example). In my opinion, we need to prevent erasure again and move toward inclusively writing events as well as dismantling phallogocentrism in all spheres of life.
Mara-Johanna Kölmel: My research explores how artists are using digital technologies to enact structures for memories. My argument is that a recent generation of artists is reclaiming the convoluted concept of monument (as a structure that is proof to memory, that preserves memory, remembers, reminds but also bridges past, present, and future) to highlight the trajectories of those forgotten, erased, and left behind. Do you see your work as a monument of a different kind?
Marie-Eve Levasseur: For this one, definitely. I felt the need to tell this story directly after discovering that I had better role models to look at. I directly felt more in the right place, knowing that this passion of beer and brewing had some solid roots in a story that I find more appealing than anything I heard or saw before. This is partly why this work could function as a digital monument, an homage to all the brewsters, alewives, braceresses, mothers, sisters, and friends who cared for their kin by brewing the vital beverage. That’s the kind of remembering that I, personally, find relevant and empowering. The digital does not yet offer insurance of its archiving potential. That is maybe the reason why, in my practice, I still hang on to materiality. I plan this work in a long-term way, as a multimedia installation including ceramics and other mediums that would be exhibited along with the digital.
Mara-Johanna Kölmel: So how will this project venture from the screen into the real world, and evolve further?
Marie-Eve Levasseur: Well, I was approached by Ute Hartwig-Schulz who curates projects and exhibitions at a former brewery that is being rebuilt as a cultural center and art space in Halle, Germany. As they were renovating the ruins, they asked me if I would be interested in participating in their project. That’s when I began my research on women in brewing. Having the opportunity to do this web residency right now means an important turn in my practice, and the beginning of a series of works along those new lines. In the next year at the Schwemme in Halle, I will present an extension of this digital work I am working on for the Schloss Solitude’s Web Residency, along with ceramic pieces, video, audio, and a special collaborative brew in the form of a full-room installation. I have already started a conversation with the composer Johannes Grosz about the potential transformation of the new hymn into a multivoice sung piece, that I hope to record with my own voice, and maybe chant it while brewing my next beers. I wish to reinforce the ritualistic aspects of beer brewing and drinking through the singing of the hymn, reconnecting with former and present rituals. Beer is known to have been used for initiation ceremonies, rites of passage (cycles of life or seasons), feasting, rituals of death and mourning, and as an offering to ghosts. The potential intoxication of the beverage made people come closer to the mystical. In ancient Egypt, small-scale breweries in paintings or clay models were sometimes put in the sarcophagus of Pharaohs to accompany the deceased in their final journey, providing them with beer for the eternity of their afterlife.
Mara-Johanna Kölmel: In a way, then, one could say that you imitate the very idea of brewing in the digital medium and in the sense of bringing different heterogeneous materials together to create one powerful potion. I think there is something magical in brewing itself but also in the concept of brewing as a cultural praxis to access our contemporary. How would you describe your artistic notion of brewing?
Marie-Eve Levasseur: As for brewing or cooking, art could be understood as a »container« that is filled with materials, images, associations, colors, textures, fictions, and experiences, then being submitted to different transformations with various tools and techniques, accepting the sometimes mysterious accidents and glitches on the way and maybe learning from them. While brewing, there are also many containers, one for each step of the transformation, and each time it contains the liquid in the process of becoming a beer. Although the result is planned, the taste and the nuances that you can then perceive are never the same (if we’re not talking industrial production, of course). They have been influenced by the moment, the brewer/brewster’s mood, what was available within the spice shelf, which malts were in storage … and maybe even the moon phase can change something, since it has an effect on so many bodies of water and living beings. There is also the actions of a very invisible wild yeast in the air, or from the skin of the brewster, so there is a part of homebrewing you can’t completely control, and I like that. I think the magic often comes from what you can’t control or reproduce. It’s often through some sort of unconscious collaboration with glitches, errors, or in the case of brewing, wild yeast, that we come to a result that has an unusual potential.
Mara-Johanna Kölmel: What is important to emphasize is that your work actually celebrates co-authorship with the nonhuman. Its protagonist is the yeast that activates, transforms, and gives life. To close our conversation, what does symbiotic care in the twenty-first century mean to you? How does it manifest, and how can we attune our surroundings to take on the responsibility of caring?
Marie-Eve Levasseur: I see symbiosis here as mutualistic, where each organism contributes something that benefits the survival of the other. And being mutually beneficial, the symbiosis becomes caring in itself. The brewing person is feeding the yeast with sugars and takes care of the optimal conditions in temperature and humidity, and in return, the yeast cells will ferment the beverage. Without this collaboration, beer cannot exist. I think it is part of a post-anthropocentric strategy to acknowledge the doings and importance of other beings, which reminds us of a deep mutual dependence on this planet. Thinking only through and with the anthropos is an error that has shaped our species for too long. I understand Muntu Maxims as exactly this: a symbiotic caring future with awareness of the connections and mutual dependencies of everything that lives.
May Ninkasi live with you – let her pour your beer everlasting.
Mara Johanna Kölmel is a London-based curator and art historian with a special interest in (post-)digital art and culture. She has performed international curatorial roles for the Biennale of Sydney/Australia and Kunsthalle Hamburg/Germany, also realizing exhibitions at Somerset House and The Silver Building in London/UK with the curatorial collective.
© 2021 Akademie Schloss Solitude and the author