"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.
Busy finding food under the butts of each other and saddled with scavenging fish on their backs and bellies, the turtles brought peaceful inspiration as I admired their beautiful shells and daily activities.
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!
Recently I was at an event where a beautiful tree by artist, Sam Van Aken, was being auctioned off to benefit Creative Capital. It was not in full flourish yet, but still a young green leafy growth with 20 varieties of stone fruit grafted: a technique whereby tissues from one plant are inserted into those of another so that the two sets of vascular tissues may join together. This vascular joining is called inosculation, and allows for asexual propagation of related species.
The process takes years for Sam to work with his plants to cultivate these sculptures that have a life of their own.
Sam with one of his hybrid trees, 2013
Here is a description, in his own words, about this hybridization and interdisciplinary project.
The Tree of 40 Fruit is an ongoing series of unique hybridized fruit trees. Blossoming in variegated tones of pink and white in spring, through a process of sculpting by way of grafting and pruning, each tree in this series has the capacity to grow 40 varieties of fruit from the family of stone fruits including peach, plum, apricot, nectarine, and cherry, and will reach an approximate size of 20’ tall with a canopy of 20’.
The Tree of 40 Fruit are allegorical sculptures. As a symbolic number found throughout western religion, culture, and government, the number 40 symbolizes the infinite, a bounty that is beyond calculation. Like the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, these trees are a potential; they are the beginning of a narrative that transforms the site they are located in. The far-reaching implications of these sculptures include issues of genetic engineering, biodiversity versus food monoculture, and, ultimately, the symbiosis of humankind’s relation to nature.
One of the most challenging aspects of the work is the planning or envisioning of how each graft, time of blossom, and fruiting will change the aesthetic and balanced quality of the tree. It is at this point that the process becomes sculptural. Nature poses a challenging collaborator. Where a bronze sculpture would provide an easier ally, working with living material can be temperamental. But it is this living quality that I feel gives the tree its greatest impact and potential.
The innate challenge of attempting to effect an aesthetically directed and functional “lifestyle” for multiple organisms without overshadowing nature’s voice within each tree is a microcosm of the perennial, universal quest for balance in uncertainty. This is the same story with Living Sea Sculptures. Although I have yet to begin “pruning” the aquatic topiary-like forms, I’m thinking of how to bridge the divide between destructive human desires, needs, actions and constructive organic ecosystems. Artists who work with other beings that don’t speak in words are blurring the lines of art, science, and technology as they develop interspecies projects and dialogues. I’m in awe of the quiet partners, since they’ve been around for so many thousands, or millions, of years, and in relation to them, we are Earth dwelling novices exploring their unique reproduction and life-giving bounty.
Now, to share a quick look into our ancient tree-lined past. In case you haven’t heard of the primeval forest in the waters of Alabama, it dwarfs our relatively new research into collaborating with living nature. Buried for years without Oxygen, it has persisted with its Cypress smell intact. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina most likely ripped back the protective layers of sand and sediment to reveal this 50,000 year old forest. One person suggests it has been in the ocean for 12,000 years; most accounts I find say it is estimated at 50,000 years old, but as you see in the video, it is not long for this exposed world.
Something about unexpected ancient forests surviving in the ocean juxtaposed with a 40 stone-fruit forest springing from one tree…I can’t stop thinking of Thoreau’s quote that I saw this past week while helping a friend wrap up his mother’s, Barbara Rothenberg’s, artwork at her studio.
“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”- Henry David Thoreau
On July 1, GOOD featured Living Sea Sculptures just weeks after Art as Ecology: Coral Collaborations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) headquarters in June. It’s been a good couple of months of public sharing about art and science working together for coral survival.
I remember Tamagotchis capturing our attention and nurturing hours when my aunt gave me one for Christmas years ago. In the middle of a ballet (in the audience), I remember having to look down in the dark to feed it to keep it “alive.” This little egg-shaped digital critter was counting on me. Letting it die was painful, in the way giving up on any semi-OCD behavior that on some level you imagine is linked to survival is painful, but it was not longterm heart-wrenching like losing a living being.
Creative Conservationist, Asher Jay, expresses her reaction.
Why DeExtinction makes me nervous:
I take issue with nature becoming a subset of artifice. Ecosystems worldwide are already extensively curated by man, and that has resulted in few positive outcomes, if any. When you zoom out to see the larger picture, every human invention and intervention has resulted in a Black Swan*. This process of “regenesis” is not only expensive, but in its highly volatile, inchoate stages has no credibility as a sustainable solution; its potential is solely in one’s vivid imagination. Would it not be wiser to acknowledge what damage we have done and attempt to conserve what remains? In a world devoid of the common sense and compassion it takes to preserve dwindling counts of mega fauna should we really attempt to revive those we have driven to eternal silence through an imperfect procedure that has only resulted in death so far? What value does such a technology place on “life”? What of the lives lost during trial and error as science experiments? At present naturally conceived, sentient mammals that make for great cuddle toys, are not afforded the right to exist outside the spectrum of commercial exploitation, what duties of justice will the offspring of synthetic biology be granted?
We subscribe to economies of scale, we have yet to shed this avaricious mentality. Today, a select few have access to this technology; they are idealistic and intend to harbor long discussions about ethical implementation strategies before they actually set the ball in motion, but over time, this will be replicated by others and the competition will result in some using it for the right reasons and yet others for terribly wrong ones. This will likely diminish the worth of life as demand levels the costs, which would render these living beings as mere replaceable commodities- seeding large scale factory farms for harvest or worse yet as lab rats for other purposes!
Let’s flip the coin for a minute, what if they did succeed at bringing back an animal? So they spend all this money to re-wild a species for which they believe a context still exists, and once introduced into its habitat, it chokes on plastic litter, gets fried on power lines, consumes a poisoned pest, or falls prey to a poacher’s trap? Or it lacks a vital skill it would have learned only from the time it was meant to live in, from its natural parents, social systems and environment, so it fails to survive anyway? Not to mention the fact they could serve as vectors for pathogens? How much are we willing to gamble to create something with no guarantees, when we haven’t the intelligence to allocate resources to conserve what remains now? The more sensible route would be to fix our broken system and address the underlying causes that have resulted in extinctions during the Anthropocene, yes?
I think they should use this money to buy up land, build infrastructure for impoverished communities to ameliorate human-animal conflict areas and protect habitat range. They could hire anti-poaching squadrons, employ drones and trap cams, radio tag critically endangered animals and channel only surplus funds toward this recreational effort. Extinction is a natural process that has been an implicit part of the terrestrial narrative, for over 3.8 billion years, to thwart it only underscores human hubris. I am, however, not against their agenda to introduce genetic diversity to those species with fallen numbers through artificial insemination, as this measure will help ensure their survival, but to do anything more would be folly. Also do bear in mind that we have not successfully sequenced an entire genome thus far, so to splice, dice and swap bits of genetic material without knowing everything about its entire length is pretty darn foolish.
We are rather frightening in our ability to linger in denial and expend significant assets towards hyped agendas that have no proven track record to take comfort in; we do this because we are too afraid to admit to our shortcomings and past failures. Instead of being introspective and encouraging spiritual evolution we constantly look to the external and try to realign the physical, which is always out of sync with the pulse of the planet.
The Earth has known about life and death since its humble beginnings, to assume we know more and can do one better spells nothing but arrogance in my book.
——————————————————- *Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb deliberates that rare and improbable events do occur much more than we dare to think. Our thinking usually is limited in scope and we make assumptions based on what we see, know, and assume. Reality, however, is much more complicated and unpredictable than we think. Also, assumptions relevant to average situations are less relevant to irregular situations, especially when the “rules of the game” themselves do change.
“I like how Plum has turned you into a Marsupial, Colleen,” a good friend, Todd Pound, said to me. Ten years ago I walked around with my chihuahua puppy nestling against my belly under my brown fake fur coat. With a belt strapped around my coat to hold Plum in place, we could go anywhere as one. Have I ever wanted a child of my own, not so much. Would I like to birth another species? That’s a fertile concept for art and science to consider…
Let’s start with George Church. Have you read Regenesis yet? I need to read it too. Colbert helps to introduce one of the masters of genomic sequencing and bio-engineering of our time.
Freaky creepy horror movies come to mind when I hear “Bringing Back the Dead,” but crusty zombies and animated bundled mummies aren’t the images that emerge when you listen to what’s motivating some of the latest investigations. It’s about reviving and restoring life that was wiped off our Earth, according to Ryan Phelan and Stewart Brand, the founders of a new branch of the Long Now Foundation called revive and restore.
On March 15th, I attended TEDxDeExtinction in Washington DC to learn firsthand from the scientists the how, why, what of their work. I HAD to take part in this still-early conversation about the quest for genomic control and understanding. It’s like watching a toddler learn to crawl, only in this case, we have no idea what walking will actually look like since it is only an idea being spliced together with DNA fragments in surrogates. The practice of De-Extinction has been evolving for some time, as we saw with the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996; cloning mammals is a big step on the ladder towards producing life which defies traditional mating behavior.
My first uninformed reaction to cloning: When has sex been a problem for animals? Why are we doing this? (Since humans took over the planet, I guess.) No matter where this synth-bio car is driving, it is on the road! I’ve been peripherally fascinated, at times disturbed, with it since 1996, at which point I made an artwork about the Flims mating with the Flams to see if their interspecies procreation would play out my imagined hypothesis to bring forth a healthy hybrid FlimFlam.*
When I watched Stewart Brand’s TED Talk this February about De-Extinction, I felt a strong positive wave, like a sigh of relief about the potential to repair the extinctions of recent years and the ones of current moments. The very human part of me that wants the movie to end well, for all to be happy, was triggered and boiled up into a simple, joyful altruistic – wow. I was not thinking about neanderthals and woolly mammoths, but the thousands of creatures disappearing NOW, daily. Can humans reverse-engineer their conquering of lands and animals? Not easily, and not with any certainty of longterm consequences. But maybe the 6th extinction can be time-capsuled in a freezer for generations to come if we are not able or willing to clean up and protect our world fast enough. I am grateful to Joel Sartore for creating his Photo Ark of endangered species; sometimes he is capturing the LAST ONE in existence. The last one of a unique life form that you may likely have never seen, nor will see alive in the Anthropocene.
A Linne's two-toed sloth (Choloepus didactylus) at the Lincoln Children's Zoo.
Is De-Extinction sentimental? For some. Is it pure science? To others. Does it cause extreme reactions? Absolutely! In most. One argument in favor: It’s our duty – a form of human reparation owed to other species and the planetary balance. An argument against: It will deter conservation and desperately needed clean up efforts; we will expand our hubris exponentially behind a novel, monstrous shield of self-destructive folly. A point of agreement: If there are only 6 white rhinos left, do you really want Daddy Rhino sleeping with his daughter while Uncle Horn is doing his baby cousin? Not really, so by introducing frozen DNA of previous distant generations into the gene pool, we can enhance biodiversity and resilience of small, endangered populations to hopefully revive them. The potential for medical advances that will come from DNA research of extinct and living species seemed to resonate more soundly with some attendees and speakers than the passion for the resurgence of the passenger pigeon. For a detailed look at the complex event and speakers, Becky Chung reveals her take away and opens the door to millions of questions to ponder.
The idea of cultivating a species that flourished in another time, another land far far away, or maybe only yesterday, is right on par with exploration for living on Mars. Both trajectories are evidence that humans want to know and grow, surmount and escape. Embroidered into that innate curiosity and striving is an uncertain amount of risk and renewal. David Ehrenfeld spoke articulately to the arrogance of humanity. David Burney spoke to a beautiful reality of humans supporting wildlife through synergy and care in Hawaii; if you need a break from your industrial life, or want to immerse in fostering endangered species, you can go to Kauai’s Cave Reserve and reconnect to the Earth and its present day inhabitants tangibly, naturally. His talk was an uplifting reminder during the day of spirited life and comforting nurturing. Not to say that stem cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) isn’t spirited. Michael Mace’s story of working at the San Diego Zoo to bring the California condor from 22 to 400 was definitely a warm merging of conservation, molecular biology, and ethics.
GMO experimentation and conversation are expanding their reach and ripples through the global citizenry. The intentions of the scientists and presenters were like flickering facets and replicating fractals; I want to hear the dynamic accounts of their successes and failures. Some very good and some very bad things could happen, according to the psychic down the street, and I believe her. There’s probably proof (attainable only via an extinct elder) that one of the speakers was a Bucardo in a past life, but the one-day conference did not open the stage for regressions.
Whenever this conversation gets entrenched during my daily De-Extinction dialogues, I ask, “Have you noticed that so much of the world is covered in concrete? Somehow we adapted to it. Shouldn’t we be having a conversation about relieving the Earth of some of the pavement? And for the record, I want to be a surrogate for numbats.”
Numbat at Perth Zoo, W. Australia. Photo by Martin Pot
*Imaginary results: Not all of the Flims could see, and the Flams only had some ability to smell. The Flim olfactory part did not necessarily transfer to the Flams. The eye of the Flam was never a certainty for the Flims. And the mutations were rampant. (Confused? It was like a child’s science fair project made with aluminum foil, cardboard, masking tape and paint with my left hand, mouth, and leg while my right hand was healing from surgery.) Questions surrounding genetic engineering had gripped me then. Wish I could share, but I think the glossy 3″x5″ photos of the blobby purple, green and yellow FlimFlams are in a time-capsule box in an attic somewhere. It’s just fun to say FlimFlam.