Hypernatural alchemy: Hedwich Rooks makes “elixirs of slow activism” out of matter

The contemporary alchemist talks to FIBER about her RE:SOURCE residency, working with matter, and the alternative imaginaries of energy.

9 min readNov 29, 2023
Image: Hedwich Rooks

In the spring of 2023, FIBER announced two European residencies to conduct research on landscapes of extraction, transformation, and regeneration. During the first part of the RE:SOURCE Residency, titled “The Mine”, and in collaboration with NEW NOW Festival, artist Hedwich Rooks used Zeche Zollverein in Essen, once the largest coal extraction mine in the world, as a starting point for an artistic investigation into coal, mining histories, and the future imaginaries of energy usage.

The work of an alchemist is inherently speculative. It involves the metamorphosis of matter, and therefore an acknowledgment that matter is not fixed, but always in flux.

Hedwich Rooks’ research-based work, which draws on the metabolic practice of (re)creating matter and its chemical processes, consists of “stretching concepts, extending bodies, digitising matter and materialising data”. A self-proclaimed contemporary alchemist, Rooks transmutes matter(ials) into “elixirs of slow activism” in order to contribute to a more desirable environment through an artistic output that addresses ecological urgencies.

Blending the earth sciences with speculative thinking, sound theories, and synæsthesia, Rooks challenges the binary between scientific interpretation and intuitive expression and produces works that are quasi-grotesque and expose the unconventional. For her graduate project from the Ecology Futures MA at the Institute of Visual Cultures, St. Joost, she investigated blood beyond the body, exploring its geochemical nature as a biomaterial.

Rooks’ alchemic practice of transmutation invites us to reconsider our relationship with natural resources beyond extractivism. Can we imagine coal beyond its troubled function as a fossil fuel?

Image: Hedwich Rooks

FIBER: Could you give us an overview of your artistic journey and how you arrived at the themes which consistently influence your work?

Hedwich Rooks: I have always been fascinated by the path matter takes before it reaches a certain state and how it continues to evolve through its interactions. This innate curiosity serves as an ever-active sensor, whether I am in the midst of urban landscapes, serene nature or anyplace in between. As a kind of geotourist, I’m fascinated by every particle of dust and aware that much of the non-living or static matter we encounter owes its existence to biological processes.

It has always been a challenge to balance purely scientific interpretation versus embracing more intuitive or associative expression, acknowledging that these approaches are not mutually exclusive. Along the way, I became increasingly aware of the materials I was using in my work, leading to a longing to replace synthetic materials with more natural alternatives.

This transition sparked my interest in the transformative and ephemeral aspects of matter, leading me to adopt a more ecologically responsible approach to my art and to match my materials to the subjects I wanted to address.

As a self-proclaimed contemporary alchemist, could you elaborate on how you incorporate alchemical concepts into your artistic practice?

I consider myself as a contemporary alchemist because I combine and transform various materials, substances and techniques to evoke alternative meanings and experiences. I’m fascinated by the endless merging of matter and the impact of time on transforming its chemical structures, especially with the ability of humans to make conscious choices that influence these processes.

In my work, I attempt to take advantage of this given situation by (re)creating and applying metabolic processes myself, highlighting the inseparable connection between matter and its ontological properties.

I’m committed to slow research, which prioritises deep awareness over rapid innovation, emphasising attention to detail, process understanding, and a holistic view of our experiences within broader networks of relationships, spaces, and time.

In parallel, I create “elixirs of slow activism” to prompt a reconsideration of matter’s interconnectedness with pressing societal issues, ultimately contributing to a more desirable environment through art.

How does the interplay between terrestrial and extraterrestrial phenomena serve as a metaphor or commentary in your work?

A fitting example is my project 4 GRAMS OF IRON (2022), which seeks to explore the geochemical nature of human blood as a biomaterial, using the components that make up blood as artistic material to form an installation work, in particular different types of metal such as iron.

The human body contains roughly four grams of iron. Iron’s presence in biological processes dates back to the earliest forms of microbial metabolism, both on Earth and beyond. Earth’s oceans have an iron-rich composition; a result of chemical reactions initiated by oxygen, which became abundantly available after the emergence of cyanobacteria. Delving into the cosmic origin of iron, this element finds its way to Earth primarily through the aftermath of supernovas.

Image: Hedwich Rooks

About the RE:SOURCE residency

Could you share more about your experience within the RE:SOURCE Residency ‘The Mine’ exploring the former coal mine Zeche Zollverein and how it inspired your focus on hypernatural forces?

I actually immediately was behind the idea that this residency opportunity should focus primarily on coal itself. I felt the necessity to critically evaluate the history of coal mining and the anthropogenic use of coal to the present day. Consequently, I proposed to redefine the role of coal by creating a kind of post-coal, beyond its conventional status as a fossil fuel.

The overall intention was to rethink and reimagine relationships with coal by experimenting with the stored energies of past carbon lives, representing the multifaceted livingness in a body of black mass, which contains many narratives that carry the urge to be shared.

Your vision of coal’s impact on our digital and industrial society is thought-provoking. How does your outcome address this impact and raise awareness about it?

The outcome presents three research stages that captured my interest at the time of the residency. In each case, I initiated my exploration from the material itself and based the experiments on various recording and visualisation techniques. Here, I combined material research, such as chemical experiments involving coal, with digital technologies. My objective is to establish a connection between the influence and impact of varying types of coal and different moments in time.

Despite the progress made towards new energy futures, we still have a considerable way to go in eliminating the remnants and impact that coal continues to exert through our digital and industrial society.

Image: Hedwich Rooks

Coal hybrids | Tracing the changing ecology

How did you approach the interaction between environmental biota and the continually changing coal chemistry in your material experiments?

The surroundings of Zeche Zollverein keep on revealing various traces of coal; the immobilised machinery is still leaking, extruding, cracking, and shaking coal in the form of oils and powders at a much slower rate. Environmental biota is still influenced by the former coal extraction and the processes that have been applied to coal, where the current and constantly changing soil chemistry continues to pollute — yet also attracting or adapting alternate forms of life. For the material experiments, I traced the changing ecology by collecting, categorising, and mixing my findings with other materials and substances to construct coal hybrids.

You mentioned modifying the parameters of coal through processes like acidification. Could you elaborate on the implications of these modifications and how they contribute to your exploration of alternate forms of life?

Throughout history, coal has been experimented with beyond its purpose as a fossil fuel. An example is the discovery of mauve, one of the first synthetic dyes with a purple hue, which was created during an attempt to extract drugs such as quinine and morphine from coal by mixing coal tar with various chemicals.

In a series of experiments, I simulated acidification due to pollution; coal mining exposes sulphide minerals to oxidation, producing acid and contributing to acid mine drainage. By overexposing the coal with acidic solutions, I intended to gain insight into the effects of such processes. These insights can also illustrate that even materials traditionally considered waste, pollutants or purely destined for fossil fuel can undergo unexpected transformations and adaptations, potentially signalling new forms of life or being utilised in unconventional ways.

Image: Hedwich Rooks

Micromorphic visibility | Translating coal into a virtual form

The concept of translating coal into a virtual form through photogrammetry is fascinating. How do you see this approach shaping our perceptions of coal’s role and potential beyond its conventional use as a fossil fuel?

The exhibition included a large metallic print of a single shot from a series of 16-part circularly shot macro photographs of a 5mm anthracite coal sample with 180:1 magnification. This piece of coal, which has an almost luminous quality at times due to its reflective characteristics, caught my attention when I was working on pulverising larger pieces. Interestingly, the coal variant known as Jet, a mineraloid gemstone, has been widely used throughout the history of jewellery making, a craft by (the less wealthy) coal mining families. By not further digitally treating this photogrammetry technique, the beginning of its process is exposed. The embraced inaction of this transformative moment gives the coal piece a platform to question alternative potentials of the material in an aesthetic, applied, and conceptual sensibility.

Geological analysis | Creating collages of coal with mapping techniques

How do the artistic and scientific aspects of the soil lacquer peel technique offer an alternative perspective on soil layers and their composition?

With this technique, a cross-section of the soil is captured on a plate to expose its materialised histories. The matter of these soil representatives is designed manually in order to merge different time scales.

In addition, it invites you to view the exhibition space itself and treat it with the same importance as the work. If you get closer to the walls, you will find the black coal shimmering in many spots as this used to be the mixing plant, in which the different coal qualities were blended into an optimal mixture for coking. In this way, by using similar materials and colours as the space, the architectural heritage breathes through the work and vice versa.

The pixelated structure derived from coal samples is a captivating visual element. How did you come across this industrial heating and cooling process, and how did it inspire the connection to lava flows and artificial volcano formations?

The gradient towards the pixelated structure is derived from a piece sampled in the area. I showed my found samples during an appointment with a geologist from the Ruhr Museum who was able to explain to me the existential background of each one. He explained this piece was a remnant of an industrial process of heating and cooling that has formed a similar process to how lava flows, resulting in what resembles an artificial volcano formation. This link between industrial and natural processes was of such interest to me that I decided to digitise its shape and then make it tangible via laser-engraving in one of the artificial soil lacquer peels.

Image: Hedwich Rooks

Looking at the overall outcome of your project, how do you envision its impact on raising awareness about the ongoing remnants of coal and its implications in our modern society?

In the upcoming months, I will translate this project into a final installation piece. My aim is to represent the aliveness of coal inspired by traditional geological mapping techniques. That liveliness can take multiple forms. Directions of thought in this are coal microbiology in which microorganisms are an important part of coal’s transformation, how it originated -from deposits of accumulated ancient plant bodies formed in the geological past, and how more-than-human life is shaping and behaving around former coal mines.

Furthermore, I wish to provide counter-responses to human interactions with coal, such as its extraction, use as a fossil fuel, and carbon colonialism.

In this, I envision approaching coal energetically, representing ancestors or spirits of former miners or the life that once formed the coal. Finally, anthropomorphic interpretation can assist in this, for example miners thought mountains were bodies and minerals and ores were alive. I want to take it upon myself to translate this disclosure into an accessible and engaging art piece.

Looking to the future, are there any new directions, mediums, or themes you’re excited to explore in your upcoming projects?

I’m working on a long-term collaborative work focusing on different bodily fluids and planning a new event with our collective Acid Salt centred around the phenomenon of moisture. There are endless directions I would love to explore, such as doing more within sound and music, performance art, and taking on food culture related projects, ideally combining them all.

Questions: Hannah van den Elzen
Photography: Hedwich Rooks
Introduction and copyediting: Eleni Maragkou

Image: Hedwich Rooks




Amsterdam based platform and festival for audiovisual art, digital culture and electronic music. Upcoming events: FIBER Festival 2024