Salmon-Colored Salmon

Words by Natalia Torija Nieto / Images courtesy of the artists

Since 2013, London-based Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe have channeled their architecture and performance art backgrounds respectively into Cooking Sections, a research-based practice that questions and reimagines our main sources for food and water as a response to the radical Anthropocene-fostered transformation of climate and landscape. Their book Salmon: A Red Herring (isolarii, 2020) is part of a long-term research project entitled CLIMAVORE (2015–ongoing) that actively seeks new forms of eating and connecting through performance and spatial practices, as well as lectures and exhibitions.

The 2021 Turner Prize nominees regularly conduct fieldwork in the Isle of Skye, Scotland. Since 2016, in the harbor of Portree, Cooking Sections set up an Oyster Table, a wire mesh structure for filter-feeding bivalves, kelp, sea lettuce and dulse to clean the water when the tide is high, or for humans to conduct performative discussion meals when the tide lowers.

Prompted by local news of a brown-feathered sparrow turned salmon-colored after, it’s believed, it ate one of the dyed feed pellets from a salmon farm, the duo proceeded deep into the belly of farm-raised salmon only to find out not one color is representative of either wild-caught or farm-raised salmon. The impossibility of meeting year-round consumer demand without resorting to artificial dyeing and breeding methods has led to a twisted spawn fabricated by a billion-dollar industry. Salmon, Pascual and Schwabe realized, is “the colour of a wild fish, which is neither wild, nor fish (nor even salmon).”

The color of salmon depends on the level of astaxanthin, a carotenoid that would otherwise be naturally found in the krill and shrimp they feed on, and which also helps protect their body. The darker the color, the healthier the fish. The book is divided into 12 chapters, each with a subheader with the definition of salmon as a color according to different dictionaries. No two are the same: “A pale pink color” (Oxford), “Yellowish pink or pale red” (Collins), “A reddish-orange colour of high luminosity but low chroma; an orange pink” (The Century). What’s more, the book’s 178 pages are furtively printed in ten of the 15 Pantone variations of salmon defined by the SalmoFan™ color measurement standard, while the cover is gray — as salmon would otherwise be under the current farming conditions.

“In the UK, customers can buy ‘authentic Scottish salmon’ from a company registered in Jersey, owned by a Swiss bank with Ukrainian and Norwegian investors, floated on the Oslo Stock Exchange and using imported Norwegian genetic material.”

Livia Corona Benjamin, “Silvana’s Sandbox I” (2021); Sea urchin shells and cement mortar on wood panel. Photo by Luis Corzo.

Make no mistake, the descriptor “wild-caught” continues to be used, albeit in “salmon-washing campaigns,” the duo explains. “In the UK customers can buy ‘authentic Scottish salmon’ from a company registered in Jersey, owned by a Swiss bank with Ukrainian and Norwegian investors, floated on the Oslo Stock Exchange and using imported Norwegian genetic material.”

In 2021, Cooking Sections brought a performative installation about salmon to Tate Britain. In a scenic room lined with a white seamless screen, two-dimensional cut-outs of animals (a flamingo, a seal, a dog) were dramatically colored by changing light in different shades of pink to alter viewers’ perception. They also managed to get all Tate-affiliated restaurants to permanently remove salmon from their menu and include instead a CLIMAVORE item such as seaweed or bivalves.

While dyeing animals to appease human palates through the eyes sounds alarming, artificially coloring food sources for that purpose is quite common. In the mid-1800s, to produce cheaper yellow butter, the French mixed margarine with “food coloring, plant oils and animal fats, erasing the cow as the painter of this production,” the authors write. This continued in the U.S. with the “Butter Wars” when farmers fought for their natural yellow butter, colored from the plant carotene in cows’ milk, to be distinguished from its fake counterpart, forcing some states to color their margarine pink. The plant carotene is also what makes yolks yellow. But industrial poultry, far from fields of grass and marigold, are fed synthetic xanthophyll pigment: “Carophyll® Yellow and Carophyll® Red make healthy-looking eggs,” write Pascual and Schwabe. This and other dire tales of shades like Indian Yellow used by J.M.W. Turner, Mummy Brown treasured by Pre-Raphaelite painters, and the iconic green used by British designer William Morris, whose wallpaper and fabric “brought millions of square kilometres of poison into Victorian homes,” make this unassuming 2 3/4” by 4 1/4” volume as much a reference book for the ages, as a ghastly tale to be devoured in one sitting.

This is an excerpt from Issue 01 of TOUT, a print magazine by Dims. launching Spring 2022. Sign up to be notified when it’s available for preorder.