November 5, 2013
Circus performer and Mongolian-trained contortionist Inka Siefker practiced moving like a giant Pacific octopus at home. “I wiped off kitchen counters like my arm had tentacles, or used my leg to get something from the top of the refrigerator,” she says. “I have long legs.”
Siefker is one of seven performers in Okeanos: A Love Letter to the Sea, a live dance/cirque show created by Capacitor, a group that fuses art and science to connect people to their world. Capacitor performs Okeanos on stage, with dance, music, sculpture, aerialists and underwater film as a backdrop, in the Aquarium of the Bay‘s 255-seat theater at San Francisco’s Pier 39. It premiered with four performances in 2012 at Fort Mason’s Herbst Theater and then opened at the aquarium in August 2013 to play through the end of September. The show’s run has been extended and shows are scheduled for most Thursday and Saturday nights through December.
Jodi Lomask, artistic director of Capacitor, took three years to research, design and create Okeanos. She learned to surf and scuba dive and found inspiration in Capacitor Labs, where California Academy of Sciences oceanographers and marine biologists gave informal lectures to Lomask and company. Senior science advisor Tierney Thys, a National Geographic Explorer, explained the dynamics of tropical coral reefs and California kelp forests. Thys helped the dancers find narratives and move in ways that resembled the movements of marine plants and animals. Siefker learned from Thys that an octopus is floppy, and that it has nine brains, one for each arm that can move independently of the central brain.
Thys explained that tiny ocean creatures like copepods live in a completely different flow regime than larger animals like whales and dolphins. Flow regimes are described by an equation called the Reynolds number, which characterizes flow as laminate (smooth and parallel) or turbulent (disruptive with vortices). Animals that are millimeters in length operate at low Reynolds numbers, where water acts more like thick honey. Viscosity is a factor in the Reynolds equation, and Lomask and her dancers experienced the challenges of water’s viscosity by practicing their movements underwater. “It’s hard to hold onto someone while water moves and the weight of it is on top of you,” said Siefker, who practiced her seahorse dance with her contortionist partner, Elliot Goodwin Gittelsohn, in pools.
Lomask choreographed the seahorse dance (or so I call it) after Healy Hamilton, a biodiversity scientist at the California Academy of Sciences, described her work. “Seahorses are some of the most romantic creatures alive,” says Lomask, who invented a movement style to imitate the extreme posture of the seahorses. She hired contortionists who were better able to stylize the seahorse’s extended bellies, locked tails and daylong mating dance (which, for the seahorse, ends with the female transferring her eggs to the male’s pouch where the babies grow). In the show, the seahorses dance in front of Great Barrier Reef footage by filmmaker David Hannan. San Francisco cinematographer Joseph Seif shot the underwater dance film.
In another piece, Siefker swings from a hanging spiral structure. She could be a coral polyp, an anemone or a diatom. She swings in the same current, or beat, as a dancer on the floor below who is on his back with arms and legs swaying as if he is sea grass or kelp. The movement is familiar to anyone who has scuba dived, snorkeled, surfed or, actually, even walked through the glass-walled tunnels of the 707,000-gallon tank in the Aquarium of the Bay (next door to the theater) where sea kelp sway with bat rays, white sturgeon and sprays of silver sardines.
Lomask grew up with strong influences in both art and science. Before she was born, her father, Morton Lomask, was one of the scientists aboard the Bathyscaphe Trieste when it broke deep-ocean diving records in the Mediterranean Sea. (The Trieste broke another record three years later after it was redesigned by Americans and sent into the Mariana Trench.) Jodi grew up on 85 acres in the woods of Connecticut where her father built and ran a biomedical research equipment lab. Her mother, Joan Lomask, was a printmaker, sculptor and painter. “Science is the way I learn about the world. Art is the way I process what I have learned,” says Jodi.
The collision of art and science is apparent in the name of Lomask’s company. A capacitor is an electrical device that accumulates and stores electricity for a given release. “It’s a metaphor for the life of a performer,” she says. “You spend a long period of time creating work and then you release the energy all at once in the form of a performance.”
Lomask, who has also explored a forest canopy and the reproductive life of a flower through performance art, created Okeanos because she wanted to learn about the deep ocean. In the process, she realized that the health of the ocean is in crisis, with coral reefs being destroyed twice as fast as rain forests and plastic accounting for 90 percent of all pollution in the ocean. Lomask changed her habits as a consumer. She eats less seafood, and when she does she makes sure it is sustainable, and she no longer uses single-use plastic. She hopes that her audiences will do the same and lists ten things on the program that people can do, such as supporting Marine Protected Areas and lowering carbon footprints, to protect ocean life.
“All living things are sea creatures, including humans,” says Sylvia Earle, an advisor on the project, in the show’s narration. ”Imagine Earth without an ocean. Imagine life without an ocean. The single non-negotiable thing that life requires is water. Take away the ocean and take away life.”
August 28, 2013
O’Brien and naturalist Amber Hasselbring of Art-ecology have launched a campaign called “Tigers on Market Street” to speak for the butterflies that live in the canopy of trees that line the busiest street in downtown San Francisco. They are bringing the butterfly’s story to light using science and art as the City of San Francisco re-imagines the role of this hardworking boulevard in a project called Better Market Street. On blank walls and in Powerpoint talks given to groups throughout the city, the duo display photographs, paintings and fantastical collages of the butterflies and the urban world in which they live.
One of the options being considered for Better Market Street is to make way for a Copenhagen-style bike path by removing many of the London plane trees planted 40 years ago. O’Brien and Hasselbring are all for the bike paths, but their mantra is “bikes and butterflies.”
“This is not an ugly brown butterfly,” says O’Brien. “We’re talking the biggest, showiest, prettiest butterfly we have in the city.”
If you stand at the Ferry Building and look up Market Street you can see why the butterflies view the boulevard as a river canyon, their normal habitat. Naturalist John Muir also referred to city streets as canyons—he said he was more comfortable picking through an ice field than to be in the “terrible canyons of New York.” But to a butterfly, San Francisco’s city canyons provide a kind of haven.
Some species of butterflies need hillside habitats, but a tiger swallowtail lives in corridors on the banks of waterways. “Market Street is a tree-lined linear concourse that our species calls a street,” says O’Brien. “Through the point-of-view of the creature this is a river.”
To understand how a street becomes a river to these creatures, you have to slip into that point of view, says O’Brien. It’s not the species of tree that attracts them as much as it is the topographical lay. They patrol long linear things with plantings on both sides. “It’s a random accident that this street looks just like a river,” he says, “which is the magic of this story.”
They are also attracted to glades, which, in San Francisco, means open areas downtown that are protected by an initiative approved by voters in 1984 that controls shadows from tall buildings. The glades and nearby parks provide sunlight, water from fountains or sprinklers, nectar sources and an increased chance of finding a mate.
O’Brien and Hasselbring received a grant to conduct a six-month survey of the butterflies. This summer they have walked transects from the Civic Center to the Ferry Building to count them, observe their life cycles and note their nectar and larval sources. Thirteen is the highest number they have counted on any given transect, but that number is deceiving given that a butterfly has four stages of life: egg, larvae, pupae and sexually mature adult, or imago.
We spot our third butterfly after ten minutes of walking on a sunny August day. O’Brien explains that a butterfly has an 80 percent chance of being eaten in each of its four stages, which makes the one in front of us seem like a miracle. It lands on a leaf close enough for us to see the yellow and black stripes running the length of its extremely furry body, which explain the “tiger” in the butterfly’s name.
Hasselbring and O’Brien photograph each butterfly they see, then geo-tag the picture and post it on iNaturalist, an app to record and share observations in nature. They also use the images in artwork to help communicate the tiger’s story.
O’Brien, who describes himself as an Old World illustrator, has not always been a lepidopterist. His metamorphosis happened 15 years ago when a Western tiger swallowtail, the poster child of this very campaign, floated into his backyard and changed his life. To explain why he left a successful acting career to become San Francisco’s butterfly expert, he quoted Russian novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov: “When I’m in a rarefied land with a rare butterfly and its host plant all that I love rushes in like a momentary vacuum and I am at one.”
Hasselbring paints and engages in performance art. She moved to San Francisco ten years ago from Colorado and jumped into the natural side of San Francisco. Now she is the director of Nature in the City, a nonprofit that advocates for ecological restoration and stewardship in San Francisco, and sees art in the everyday. She considers all of it art—from watching the butterfly’s behavior to talking to people on the street to installing a temporary mural at Seventh and Market, which she did in 2011.
“We’re not butterfly huggers,” says O’Brien. “We just want to celebrate what’s already here. If a landscape architect had been paid to create swallowtail habitat on Market Street they couldn’t have done a better job.”
O’Brien and Hasselbring want the butterflies to be a part of an improved Market Street. They’d like to see more hardwood trees and planter boxes with butterfly-friendly flowers that will bring the butterflies down from the canopy where people can see them. They’d also like to design standalone signs similar to those in Paris that celebrate natural biodiversity in that city. On one side, the signs would illustrate the life cycle of the tiger swallowtails, and on the other side, they would list and illustrate all the other creatures in the downtown area.
“I’d like to give people in the densest downtown area these nature moments,” says Hasselbring. “With all the richness that we have on our hilltops and in our city, we could become the city of biodiversity.”
The Western tiger swallowtails of Market Street have ambassador potential. The showy species offers an opportunity to connect a lot of people with nature, and help them to see that nature can be celebrated everywhere, even in the canyons of San Francisco.
April 17, 2013
Artist Fujiko Nakaya believes in the transformative power of fog.
The first time she realized that her fog sculptures could change a person’s memory was in 1976 during the run of Earth Talk, a fog sculpture made for the Biennale of Sydney, Australia. After seeing her sculpture, an electrician told her how he had taken his family to see the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. The mountain was fogged in at first and he couldn’t see it, but the fog cleared and the view of the mountain was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
“The instant he saw the fog it changed his experience, and I liked that very much,” explained Nakaya. It was then she understood that her sculptures could feed back to personal experience and improve a person’s feeling about fog. After the electrician’s story, she was determined to reach more people, and not just those in the art world.
For forty years, Nakaya has been creating public fog sculptures all over the world. Currently, she has seven projects going in five countries. Fog Bridge is her first in San Francisco, and is one of three inaugural outdoor artworks created for the new waterfront home of the Exploratorium.
The museum, which mixes science and art in its exhibits, was previously housed at the Palace of Fine Arts, but its new site—three times as big as the last, and at Pier 15—opens its doors to the public today. The 150-foot long Fog Bridge enshrouds pedestrians with fog for ten minutes every half hour; it will be lit at night, and so promises to be a spectacular sight. The bridge is located within the free, 1.5-acre outdoor area that encircles the Exploratorium and features artwork that honors the environment of the bay.
Nine days before the grand opening, Nakaya leaned against a railing to watch test runs of Fog Bridge. The 79-year-old artist was dressed comfortably in layers of black, though the day was warm enough for shorts. Coit Tower rose out of Telegraph Hill against a clear blue sky behind the bridge. Nakaya didn’t have to pull any wizard-like levers to release bursts of fog; the system is pre-programmed and designed to interact with real-time weather data. Each side of the bridge is divided into three sections and controlled by programmed valves in the pump room. For example, an eastern wind will prompt the valves to make fog on the east side of the bridge only.
In this way, an invisible wind is made visible with brush strokes of fog. The process starts with four pumps that force high-pressure water into pipes studded with 800 petite nozzles. At the tip of each nozzle is a hole six thousandths of an inch wide where the pressurized water is forced and meets a pin that explodes the water into droplets 15 to 20 microns wide. Nakaya developed the technology in 1970 with physicist Thomas Mee, and Mee Industries continues to use the patented technology for industrial and agricultural applications.
Nakaya’s fog is, of course, a simulation of the misty blankets that spread over the “cool gray city of love” each summer when cold oceanic surface water interacts with warm moist air offshore. As warm air rises over the inland valleys, the fog is pulled through the Golden Gate, providing needed summer moisture to coastal redwoods, the tallest trees in the world.
“I hope I’m doing homage to San Francisco fog,” said Nakaya adding, “that the bay fog will devour this fog sometimes.”
The Exploratorium sees itself as a place for tourists to learn about the Bay Area’s land and seascapes, and so some of its displays and artwork educate visitors about things like the tide cycle and fog. San Francisco’s fog, however, has declined 33 percent in the last 60 years, according to a study published in 2010 by UC Berkeley biology professor Todd E. Dawson and climate analyst Jim Johnstone, and the trend is expected to continue as climate changes. Dawson says they aren’t sure of the reason behind the decline, but that it may be due to warmer sea surface temperatures. “Fog formation is really about the contrast between temperatures,” he says. “If you warm the water up, the temperature difference goes down and the fog formation goes down with it.”
That said, Nakaya adds that fog always exists as water vapor even when we don’t see it. Only when conditions change is it visual.
In the first week that the museum is open, tens of thousands of people will walk across the bridge and be enveloped by fog. The sensation, I imagine, might feel like walking on clouds. Nakaya, reportedly, is particularly intrigued by the way that fog obscures one’s sight and heightens the other senses as a result. Perhaps this is why the artist believes that fog can improve memories and change thinking. “If you have even one little experience with fog, you start to see things differently,” said Nakaya.
The artist watched the artificial fog pour out of the northeast quadrant of the bridge where it hovered for a windless moment. “Nature is so complex. We can’t understand its complexity,” said Nakaya. “If you just tap one spot it will open up so many things and enlarge imaginations.”
Fog Bridge can be experienced at the Exploratorium through September 16, 2013.