Helen Lee "1/f" & Gin and Tonic
Water has been in the news a lot recently. It’s either too scarce, too abundant, too toxic, too full of trash, or too warm. A possible explanation for this particular global crisis may be that too many people are disconnected from water’s various sources. I, like many, can turn on the faucet in my apartment and out pours potable water. Modern developments in commerce and transportation also contribute to our waning reverence for water systems. I’ve never had to dig a well, or walk miles to the closest one. Water is there when I want it: hot or cold, flat or sparkling.
A recent series of collaborative exhibitions, led by Caroline Woolard, obliquely delved into the history of the ocean and its relation to commerce. For the third installment of Carried on Both Sides, Woolard invited Helen Lee and Lika Volkova to explore the imperial history of the @ symbol. The press release explained that "the @ symbol derives from a graphic representation of the amphora, a vessel used in ancient Rome to transport goods like olive oil or grains.” I was immediately intrigued by this investigation of a now-ubiquitous symbol, yet generally underwhelmed by the show. Woolard produced hand-blown glass amphorae and other objects that I found too thinly connected to the @ symbol and its relationship with commerce and communication. The standout piece, however, was from Helen Lee. I heard it before I saw it: the distant sounds of waves crashing on the shore as I walked through the front gallery.
The 2018 multimedia work is titled 1/f in reference to the frequency of pink noise, or, the signal that most commonly occurs in nature and biological systems. The installation consists of six low glass planes framed in black steel, each supporting hundreds of tiny glass spheres. Motors tilt the frames in an asynchronous succession, and the interaction of glass on glass produces a sound like waves lapping on a sandy shore. It’s uncanny to watch something so clearly artificial and contrived, yet so sonically convincing. I closed my eyes among the machines and was immediately transported to all the beaches I’ve known.
On her website, Lee explains that the glass spheres represent units of language that come together to produce the aural undulations. As with the rest of the show, this connection felt like a stretch. Instead, the success of 1/f resides in its impeccable ability to deceive, a quality that makes a more sinister correlation with communication: fake news. I don’t think Lee is trying to gaslight her audience by insisting that 1/f is a small, contained ocean, but the piece does demonstrate how easily our senses are fooled when used without context. The illusion’s soothing sounds also invoke the soporific effect of much content shared online. It’s easier to ignore global crises when there are so many videos of unusual animal friendships and epic fails. To battle this inundation of placating media, we need reminders to meaningfully engage with the world. Lee’s work continues to haunt me as a reminder of how much our lives depend on water and how we take it for granted.
Gin and tonic
A cocktail made sense for this pairing, both for the reference to water and benefit of consuming alcohol when confronting the news every day. My first idea was to attempt to reproduce the Ocean Martini from Honey’s in Bushwick. With only three ingredients—Sea Water, gin or vodka, and foraged autumn olives—the Ocean Martini is a truly refreshing experience. To start, I made my own ocean water (i.e. water with 3.5% salinity) by diluting sea salt in some tap water. Then I mixed it with gin from the Brooklyn-based Forthave Spirits, which has a nice balance of herbs and citrus. I loved that it tasted like slightly alcoholic sea water, but my designated taste tester (boyfriend) almost gagged when he tried it. So, assuming that most people don’t want to drink ocean water (something apparently I’m game for), I changed course to a less literal and more evocative of the ocean.
We were just in Barcelona, where I drank a lot of vermouth (or vermut, as they say) and cava. There was something distinctly coastal about the herbaceous, slightly medicinal flavor of the vermouth and the effervescent freshness of the cava. Gin and Tonics combine those two characteristics in one delicious libation. Plus, if you get tonic with natural quinine, it can help stave off malaria!*
For centuries, the Quechua people in Peru have used the bark of chinchoa trees to make a tonic to relieve shivering. Colonializing Spaniards noticed this effect in the early 1600s, and successfully used the bark to treat malaria. The Spanish quickly built and industry around the production and sale of chinchoa bark, which helped fuel all kinds of colonialist expansion by allowing Europeans to survive in malaria-plagued regions of Africa and Asia. In 1820, French Chemists Pierre Pelletier and Joseph Caventou discovered that chinchoa bark contained malaria-quelling quinine, among other alkaloids. By itself, quinine is bitter, so British colonizers in India came up with the idea of mixing it with sugar, gin, and citrus. Just a bit of history to complicate your enjoyment of this bar favorite!
Tonic water ice cubes (this isn’t absolutely necessary, but it’s nice not to dilute the drink with watery ice cubes)
2 oz Gin
3–4 oz Tonic water—I used Fever Tree, which contains natural quinine from chinchoa trees in the Democratic Republic of Congo (another region with a complex history of colonialism)
Make the tonic water ice cubes.
Combine the gin and tonic water
Add a splash of lime juice
Sip contently as you contemplate the seemingly unavoidable history of exploitation in pretty much everything
*Apparently you would have to drink gallons of today’s tonic water to get enough quinine to treat malaria. Don’t try this.
The information about chinchoa and how it evolved into the G&T came from this article by Tom Friedman on Big Picture Education: https://bigpictureeducation.com/plants-changed-world-cinchona