Fire! Fire! Corals are Feeling the Heat!

Fire escape on 6th and Ave A

I wanted to make an art installation on 6th street here in New York’s East Village.  Using the Gossamer community crocheted and needle-felted reef, I would attach the textile corals and fish to the white undulating fire escapes, like Biorock sculptures, and project video of underwater coral reefs onto the building.  Live music would play.  Perhaps the instrumentalists would be on different levels of the fire escapes immersed in their steel boats adrift like such unusual organisms populating the sea.

So many ideas and projects run through me all the time related to corals and how to convey their beauty and their endangerment, their need for life support and healthy habitat, and of course, OUR need for them.  When my dog walks me down a new street, it often seems as if he’s guiding me to a place or a thing to spark my imagination that unites urban life with nature’s presence, such as the idea I just described for Fire! Fire! Corals are Feeling the Heat!

What about an app that responds to your geolocations, where it appears that fire escapes, bridges, and other inspiring architectural forms are accreting with minerals, colonizing with corals or oysters, and marine life?  I really want to put my energy into creating the living sculptural reefs and nurseries in the ocean, but while I’m in the city, I can’t turn off my inner vision of all this aquatic fluid atmosphere that permeates my mind.  And once we get the webcams onto the sculpture, ZOE, in Cancun, the resulting projections and live feeds will tie in positively to this evolving land and sea revival experience that will hopefully lead us away from this grim end as described by scientist, Charlie Veron, in Iain McCalman’s new book – The Reef:  A Passionate History (reviewed by Rob Nixon in the NY Sunday Times)

Without an abrupt decline in greenhouse gas emissions, “there is no hope of reefs surviving to even midcentury in any form that we now recognize. If, and when, they go, they will take with them about one-third of the world’s marine biodiversity.” Bearing witness to this gradual annihilation, Veron concludes, is “like seeing a house on fire in slow motion.”

A consuming conflagration metaphor.  I can’t have Veron’s prediction take hold in my mind or it throws me off center and off my positive focused trajectory, but perhaps politicians, businesses, big corporations, and anyone unaware of the true bottom line, will start to listen and begin cleaning up dirty industry if a renowned scientist points this gun, already smoking, to their heads, threatening their homes with this horrifying image.

If the message stating that all is already lost gets louder than the message inviting you to think of how to get involved, what effect does that have on you?  What combination of lightness with darkness motivates shifts in behavior and values?  I can’t tell you how many times I meet someone who assumes corals are doomed based on hearing snips about bleaching and acidification. They smile and share personal stories or offer strategy when I tell them that from pollution to restoration, there are things that CAN be done. It isn’t time to pretend the house is already burnt to the ground and just stand there drinking beer on the sidelines like you might be doing this month watching the World Cup.  (What a finish for Portugal last night tying in the last seconds!)

Seriously, Veron does say “slow motion,” and that’s an opening for optimism in the midst of despair.  If that somehow gives the endangered animals more time to adapt and people more time to develop new energy, rescue activities, and to stop injecting sewage, fertilizer, and carbon into the sea, it remains to be seen what 2050 holds.  My concept of the fire escapes with the corals growing over was to symbolize both the urgency and the potential to escape the heating oceans caused by climate change.  To find a way out of the burning building into the air to survive the disaster.

Reef Madness

Additional note for perspective, I recently read the book, Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral.  The “coral reef problem” illuminated how recently we had no idea about how coral reefs are formed, and it intimately illustrates just how controversial and political scientific theories and quests can be, then and now.  How egos take the stage and discoveries are intertwined with layered cultural and societal beliefs and systems.  Some philosophies and styles are in the process of dying off; it’s like new species of understanding, expressing, and technology emerge with evolution and that directly impacts our ability to see and discern our reality. Even though corals create bone-like stone, our ideas and assertions about them are much less solid.  There’s space in the world to explore working together to escape the “fires of hell” and create cooler, collaborative coral conservatories that will teach us much more than we know now.

 

Bio-Art

I was invited to Genspace the other night to listen to a lecture by Ingeborg Reichle, Art Historian, and Pinar Yoldas, Artist-Researcher, although at one point she said, “I am just an artist,” during the Q&A when the focus had turned to activism to end plastic pollution and policy discussions.  I felt her frustration, or it was my frustration, about someone saying that her work was “whimsical,” and therefore a less impacting or meaningful way to address our current situation in the toxic plastisphere nurdle soup that Captain Charles Moore and others have been revealing since the late 90’s.

With so much plastic in the ocean that “there is more plastic than plankton,” Pinar has been designing an Ecosystem of Excess complete with all kinds of imaginary organisms that feed on plastics.  I asked if she intends to work with geneticists to realize her creatures, and she said she’s interested…it’s a complicated reality and I don’t think she or any of us take the plastic situation lightly . There are researchers and actual microorganisms already evolving along with the progression of enormous masses of synthetic waste in the ocean.  With so many shapes and sizes of plastic host bodies everywhere, how can life not take advantage of this opportunity to mutate and migrate?

My take away is that so many of us creative beings are being asked to get stuck telling people to change, as if activism has only one face: telling people a problem and what to do about it. But what is static about life and innovation? We need to allow for paradigms to shift and hope that fearful feelings of insecurity about the future lead to breakthroughs.  There are many ways to shift perspective and expand the conversation while maintaining grounded in the confusing possibilities of every day.  Listening to your own visions and inner voice in this time of rapid climate change is crucial.  How else can we bust out of traps of collective blindness and work through the denial and guilt to get to new discoveries?  Pinar was not highly positive about the situation; she is an activist shining light on a serious issue, but she is doing it in a way that brings beauty and horror together through artistic, visionary skill. Making the work is therapeutic for Pinar. Watching our oceans become wastelands is too tragic to handle without an outlet.

Recently I asked for more water in my plastic cup on an airline.  The flight attendant took my cup and said, “I’ll get you a new one,” as if she was doing me a favor when I wanted to use my perfectly good plastic cup. Since airlines are such huge carbon polluters, it seems like such an easy thing to have people reuse their cups.  At coffee shops, why not bring in your own cup and get rewarded with a discount?  All of this policy rule stuff has no appeal for me, though, as a career.  It drives me nuts, so I need to do something else with my fantasy for a healthy world.

I don’t like getting stuck in feeling guilty and overwhelmed. It’s too righteous and blocks the flow of imagination to keep learning and bringing new ideas and solutions into form so that more and more people can choose how to build the now that will become the future.

A man in the audience asked if Pinar could build a huge plastic reef with 3D printed corals that could survive climate change.  I couldn’t help it, I plunked my sample chunk of Biorock from a project in the ocean onto the chair by him.

Biorock® sample cross-section taken from an underwater sculpture in Bali © 2004

Later we talked a bit about how there is already one process with electrified steel reefs that intentionally addresses the environmental stresses threatening corals. While talking to Ingeborg about plastic pollution and oceans, she introduced me to two professors from the National University of Mexico, Mexico City.  They offered to look into locations and partners for art and science coral restoration projects in Mexico.  The evening had many layers of organisms interacting, from science fiction microbes to modern day humans doing what all life does, connect and spread ourselves into the world through thoughts, words, and actions.

Today I’m in the middle of my second day as a co-create resident artist at IMC Lab + Gallery.  I’ll be working on alter ego TrashTara – Compassionate Deity of the Dregs culminating in a photo/video show resulting from interacting with the public on the streets thanks to a grant from LMCC, and Respire: The Coral Corollary, a multi-sensory interactive installation correlating human health with coral health through the context of artificial respiration and life support.  Genspace will be helping me with some fluorescing dead bacteria for TrashTara’s headdress to avoid using plastic resin as a translucent material in exchange for the latest in bio-arts. Plastics, with their consumer model of planned obsolescence, were once considered the best thing ever, and people got out of control with that. I really have mixed feelings about genetic engineering, but for this small-scale project, I will see what I learn and keep sifting through all the difficult choices.

 

Turtles Tortugas in Akumal Bay

"ZOE" at Puerto Cancun 2011. Photo by Mike Gerzevitz.

I was recently in Mexico again. From Cancun to Akumal to Isla Mujeres, I was working on clearing our way to install the DNA-inspired sculpture into the ocean.  I brought a friend and technical adviser, Jennifer Indovina of Tenrehte, along to help me scout out the best locations for wifi and power sources since we are now going to be adding webcams to this coral, fish, and biodiversity refuge.  She is building a custom website so you will be able to watch the evolution of the coral reef ecosystem as a virtual aquarium.

I rented a camera to capture some of the underwater life and to document potential sites for this sculpture or possibly future ones.  We were swimming out from shore to look at the set up for the TurtleCams they have in Akumal Bay,

TurtleCams power supply - A View into the Blue and teens4Oceans project in collaboration with Centro Ecológico Akumal (CEA)

and that’s when green turtles began to appear right below us.  They were grazing on the sea grasses. I didn’t know what to expect of their behavior.  They had a very casual easygoing style.  From my short experience observing, I’d say they are calm, mildly curious, and like to socialize with their other grazing companions.  When they swam up to the surface for gulps of air, they glided like graceful, slow-flying birds.  They seem like gentle beasts that have become trusting from so many tourists, yet are not interested in interacting in any way.

Swimming in Akumal Bay. Photo by Colleen Flanigan.

The area needs a new sewage treatment plant, which is one of the reasons the water gets so murky. If you visit the Yucatan Peninsula and stay at a hotel, ask the managers if they deep inject their sewage.  Long story, but water treatment is a huge issue in Mexico. Corals are much more sensitive to certain pollutants than humans. The movie, Angel Azul by Marcy Cravat, does a beautiful job sharing about the pollution through the intersection of art and science working for the environment in the underwater museum, MUSA.  She started with the story of artist, Jason deCaires Taylor, and like any good detective, she followed emerging clues, piecing together a puzzling and illuminating truth about our unsustainable systems and areas ripe for transformation.

It has been almost 3 years since we made the DNA sculpture in Cancun, so it was slightly bittersweet (chocolate) to see the steel sculpture making cameos in the background at Puerto Cancun as Jason’s and other cement sculptures were being deployed by boat. More sweet than bitter, actually, since I was so moved by the excellent filmmaking and knowing all the people and places in it.  It made things even more real. I’m committed to completing this project and to growing relationships in the region through this journey.  The sculpture is not in the water yet because of complications with land permits for the power source, but the ecosystem of diverse, caring people involved in this important ecological story is evolving, and so are our visions.  A few years isn’t that long in geological and bureaucratic time. BUT, since I’m a human trying to help save corals dying at rapid rates~  IN THE WATER IN 2014!

To the Future. Photo by Colleen Flanigan, 2014.