November 21, 2013
Washed up on the remote beaches of southern Alaska are plastics of every shape, size and color. There are detergent bottles, cigarette lighters, fishing nets and buoys, oil drums, fly swatters and Styrofoam balls in various states of decay. They come from around the world, adrift in rotating sea currents called gyres, and get snagged in the nooks and crannies of Alaska’s shoreline. Set against a backdrop of trees, grizzly bears and volcanic mountains, these plastics are eye-catching, almost pretty—and yet they are polluting the world’s oceans.
The garbage, dubbed “marine debris” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wreaks havoc on marine ecosystems. It destroys habitats, transports nonnative species, entangles and suffocates wildlife. Animals mistake the garbage for food and, feeling full, starve to death with bellies full of junk. For humans, the problem is more than cosmetic; marine debris endangers our food supply.
In June 2013, a team of artists and scientists set out to see the blight firsthand. Expedition GYRE, a project of the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska SeaLife Center, traveled 450 nautical miles along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska to observe, collect and study marine debris. A companion exhibition, opening in February 2014 at the Anchorage Museum, will showcase artworks made using ocean debris.
For the artists on the GYRE expedition, each day in Alaska was filled with scientific briefings, trash reconnaissance and individual pursuits. All four artists—Mark Dion, Pam Longobardi, Andy Hughes and Karen Larsen—are known for work that explores environmental themes and, more or less explicitly, the pleasures and perils of plastic.
Mark Dion is, first and foremost, a collector. The New York-based artist often works in the mode of an antiquarian naturalist, arranging modern and historical objects in collections that resemble Renaissance curiosity cabinets. “This is kind of the way I know things,” says Dion, “by collecting, by having physical contact with actual material.”
On the black sand of an Alaskan beach, Dion created a collage of bottle caps, sorted by shape and color. It wasn’t a finished piece, by any means, but an effort to “learn by seeing.” He cast himself as the “proverbial Martian archaeologist,” trying to make sense of the detritus of human civilization based on its formal qualities.
“When stuff is strewn on the beach, it’s deposited by forces of nature [so that] it takes on almost a natural quality,” he says. “But there’s nothing natural to it. This is a way to restore it as a cultural artifact, an artifact which fits uncomfortably in these remarkably remote places.”
These places were remote even for Karen Larsen, the only Alaska-based artist on the trip. She viewed GYRE as a “fact-finding mission,” a chance to explore parts of the state that she hadn’t visited before. Larsen has created several environmental works such as “Latitude,” a large-scale installation made out of ice and snow, and “XGRN,” a graphic depicting the life cycle of a water bottle.
“Alaska is not as pristine as everyone thinks it is,” Larsen says. “No place is really that way anymore.” During the trip, she was particularly drawn to microplastics—colorful, beadlike particles measuring less than five millimeters in diameter. Stored in a jar, the artist’s collection of the plastic bits resembles confetti and, she says, evokes the “small changes in our plastic ways” that can have a big positive impact.
Dion noticed that the artists and scientists collected in a “parallel way.” Nick Mallos, a conservation biologist, collected bottle caps in order to trace their provenance, while Odile Madden, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, tested her plastic collection for toxicity. “Instead of becoming a science collection or an art collection, it just became one collection that we both [were] able to use for our different purposes,” Dion says.
Pam Longobardi collects, in part, to clean up. She feels compelled to remove as much trash as she possibly can. “Every single piece of plastic I pick up or roll or drag, that specific piece is not going to harm a wild creature,” she says. “It’s not going to be tangling a whale. It’s not going to be in a bird’s stomach or end up in fish or seals. That’s why I’ll do it, and I’ll bend over the millionth time and drag the material off the beach.”
As part of the expedition, the GYRE team assisted with the National Park Service’s clean-up, retrieving a full ship’s worth of marine debris. The top deck of the research vessel was piled six feet high with garbage—but there was still more, innumerably more, left on the beach.
Pam Longobardi is an artist, an educator and an unapologetic activist. Her “Drifters Project” employs marine debris as both medium and message. One piece called “March of Humanity,” for instance, is an array of 77 orphaned shoes, illustrating the wastefulness of human industry. In “Defective Flow Chart (House of Cards),” 1,300 pieces of Styrofoam, which Longobardi personally fished out of a cave in Greece, are stacked into a delicate shrine of seemingly ancient origin—though there is, of course, nothing ancient about it.
“I see the art as an arm of activism because it can activate,” Longobardi says. “I think art has work to do. It can motivate people, and it can be transformational.” She was the first artist to join the GYRE project and worked closely with Howard Ferren, conservation director at the Alaska SeaLife Center, to recruit other artists for the expedition and exhibition.
Her companions on the trip share her passion for conservation but nonetheless balk at the term “activist.” Andy Hughes, a photographer from Cornwall, England, supports environmental NGOs but describes his photography as “sitting on the fence” between art and activism. His 2006 book, Dominant Wave Theory, for example, features close-up portraits of forlorn pieces of beach trash. Mark Dion sees himself as an “artist aligned with environmentalism” and concedes the limitations of contemporary art in reaching the general public. Dion acknowledges that his work, exhibited in fine art galleries across the globe, tends to preach to a well-heeled and politically liberal choir.
Longobardi, on the other hand, regularly collaborates with advocacy groups, reads scientific papers, shares online petitions and otherwise pushes for environmental policy reform worldwide. Her work has brought her face-to-face with the violence done by marine debris, and she has studied the science extensively, albeit informally. “I don’t have any kind of censor or gag order on my thoughts and feelings about this,” she says. “I don’t have to wait until I prove it in a scientific paper to tell what I know.”
Ultimately, solving the problem of marine debris will require as much artistic conviction as it does scientific rigor. Art moves people in a way that even the most shocking statistics cannot. The GYRE expedition’s “stroke of brilliance,” according to lead scientist Carl Safina, was giving artists a platform to articulate the issue to a broad audience. “If the scientists alone had gone and said, ‘We saw so much trash and 30 percent of it was blue and 40 percent of it was green and 90 percent of it was plastic,’ it would be of no interest to anybody,” he says. “That’s the thing that I appreciate about the artists. Their work is instantly just much more accessible.”
Bringing it all back home
Somewhat ironically, the artists use beauty to call attention to the ugliness of marine debris. Plastics are attractive, arrayed in bright colors and shiny forms as irresistible in one instant as they are disposable the next. As Dion puts it, “these objects are meant to seduce.”
Longobardi’s art seduces too, using beauty as a “hook” as well as a dialectical “weapon”; viewers are drawn into her intricate creations, then unnerved to realize that they are made out of plastic trash. “What I’m talking about is so horrifying [that] to go straight to the horror of it, I would lose a lot of people,” she says. She is currently working on two pieces inspired by the GYRE expedition—one, a ghoulish plastic cornucopia that symbolizes the “squandered bounty of the planet,” and the other, a sculpture with a range of small to large plastics, including tiny toys and the lid of a BP barrel, all made from and representing petroleum.
Andy Hughes is creating what he calls “constructed photographs, more akin to painting.” His new work avoids metaphors of destruction and overconsumption, instead portraying plastic objects as “religious orbs, which float and inhabit sky, earth, beach and sea.”
For Hughes, the trip has lost none of its emotional potency. His memories come back to him, half a world away, whenever he puts on his Wellington boots. He had set out for Alaska expecting it to be “vast and empty,” but instead discovered that “it was completely alive,” teeming with millions of organisms. Hughes said that the beaches in Alaska actually reminded him of the ones back home in Cornwall.
Indeed, it felt strange to Mark Dion that they traveled so far to see a problem that hits every human so close to home. “The lesson of this trip is that there is no away,” says Dion. “There is no other place. Everything we try to get rid of, we find again.”
November 8, 2013
Photographer Bernhard Edmaier is a geologist by training, and it is this knowledge base of the processes that create geological features that he leans on when selecting locations to shoot. For almost 20 years, he has hunted the world over for the most breathtaking views of coral reefs, active volcanoes, hot springs, desert dunes, dense forests and behemoth glaciers.
“Together with my partner Angelika Jung-Hüttl, I do a lot of internet research, including Google Earth[searches], study satellite images of planned destinations, maintain close contact with local scientists and commercial pilots, deal with various authorities and negotiate flight permits,” says Edmaier. “It can take months of research until the moment of shooting has arrived.”
Then, on that long-awaited day, the German photographer boards a small plane or helicopter and instructs the pilot to position him in just the right spot over the landform. He often has that perfect shot in mind, thanks to his planning, and he captures it out of the side of the side of the aircraft with his 60-megapixel digital Hasselblad camera.
From a logistical standpoint, Edmaier explains, “As my favorite motifs, geological structures, are mostly very large, I need to shoot my images from a greater distance. Only from a bird’s eye view can I manage to capture these phenomena and to visualize them in a certain ‘ideal’ composition.” Then, there are, of course, aesthetics driving his methods. “This perspective perfectly allows me an exciting interplay of concrete documentation and somehow detached reduction and abstraction, with more accentuation of the latter,” he adds.
Looking at an Edmaier photograph, your eye might trace a fracture, fault, rock fold or pattern of erosion like it would the stroke of a brush until, without any geographic coordinates or other means of orientation, you find yourself thinking you could be gazing at an abstract painting.
In his new book, EarthART, published by Phaidon, the aerial genius presents a broad survey, from the islands of the Bahamas to the alpine meadows of Italy’s Dolomites and Germany’s Alps, the rugged desert of California’s Death Valley to a bubbling mud pool in New Zealand ominously named “Hell’s Gate,” in 150 images organized–quite beautifully–
by color: blue, green, yellow, orange, red, violet, brown, grey and white.
“Each photograph is accompanied by a caption explaining how, where and why these spectacular colors occur: from tropical turquoise seas to icy blue glaciers; from lush green forests to rivers turned green by microscopically small algae,” reads the book jacket. Edmaier was particularly enamored with the Cerros de Visviri, a mountain range on the Chile-Bolivia border that he calls “an orgy of all shades of orange.” The oranges, yellows, reds and browns are the result of a chemical alteration of the iron in volcanic rocks turning to iron oxide and iron hydroxide.
The book reads like a plea not to take these colors and geologic wonders for granted. In the introduction, Jung-Hüttl, a science writer, describes how the Earth’s hues developed over 4.6 billion years:
“Our planet was first a grey cloud of cosmic dust, then, following collisions with meteorites and comets, a glowing red fire ball of molten rock, the surface of which cooled off gradually before solidifying to form a dark crust. Enormous quantities of water vapor in the early atmosphere, which was acid and without oxygen, led to intense precipitations on the young earth, which in turn led to the creation of oceans over the course of several millions of years. In the cold regions, the white of the ice fields was added to the blue of the water…The widespread shades of red, yellow and brown first occurred when the earth was half as old as it is today, that is to say around 2 billion years ago. These shades are the result of chemical rock weathering, which only became possible once small amounts of oxygen had become enriched in the earth’s atmosphere…Much later, around 500 million years ago, the first green land plants settled on the banks of the waters and spread gradually across the continents.”
Edmaier thinks most humans have a very anthropocentric view of the world. “In our imagination, the Earth or Earth’s surface is something eternal or with very little changes. But the opposite is true. Infinite processes are continuously remodeling the surface and interior of the Earth. But only a few processes are directly observable,” he says. The photographer specifically chooses landscapes that have not yet been touched or altered by humans.
“Most of these spots are fragile, nature-created formations which, in the long run, will be unable to resist man’s unstoppable urge to exploit. They will alter and ultimately disappear,” says Edmaier. “So, I would be happy if at least some viewers of my images decide for themselves that the remaining intact natural landscapes are worth preserving.”
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.”
October 15, 2013
The sea has been the stage for monstrosities and strange tales since antiquity. And, why not? Unlike land, the ocean is constantly shifting and moving, with currents that could carry a ship off course and storms that threaten wrecks. Even the substance itself, seawater, is often cold and dark, and deadly to drink in quantity. So, what of the creatures that were thought to live there?
The sea monsters that populated European medieval and renaissance imaginations—fierce-toothed animals battling in the waves, long serpents wrapped around ships, torturously beautiful sirens and a wide assortment of chimeric beings—are the subject of two new books. Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, by Chet Van Duzer, and Sea Monsters: A Voyage around the World’s Most Beguiling Map,by Joseph Nigg, both focus exclusively on illustrations, several of which are included here, of such monsters on old maps.
More than mere marginalia and playful illustration, cartographers drew sea monsters to enchant viewers while educating them about what could be found in the sea. Most of the decorated maps weren’t used for navigation, but rather were displayed by wealthy people. That doesn’t mean the monsters were purely ornamental inventions though. “To our eyes, almost all of the sea monsters on all of these maps seem quite whimsical, but in fact, a lot of them were taken from what the cartographers viewed as scientific, authoritative books,” said author Chet Van Duzer in a podcast with Lapham’s Quarterly. “So most of the sea monsters reflect an effort on the part of the cartographer to be accurate in the depiction of what lived in the sea.”
There was a long-held theory, going back to at least the first century with Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, that every land animal has an equivalent in the ocean. There were thought to be sea dogs, sea lions, sea pigs—you name it. Some of these are now the names of real animals—sea lions are eared seals and sea pigs are deep-water sea cucumbers (tube-like relatives of sea stars) with legs. But the medieval imaginings were the literal hybrid of fish with the known land animal.
Some of the illustrations, however, are closer to real animals but warped into monstrous forms. Whales were typically drawn with beastly heads, like a cross between a wolf and a bird, with tusks or large teeth and waterspouts. Despite their generally gentle nature, they were often drawn attacking ships. While it’s unlikely that such confrontations were frequent, it’s easy to imagine the fear welling up when a sailor spotted the back of a whale longer than his ship rise above the waves. If it jumps from the water, is it on the attack?
These uneducated sailors were the main sources for artists and writers trying to describe life in the ocean. So, their reports of monsters—from the singing sirens that lure sailors to jump to their deaths to the the lobster-like “octopuses” and various serpents and worms—became the basis of natural history texts and drawings on maps. These maps then helped perpetuate the life of these creatures, as they inspired travelers on the dangerous sea to confirm their existence.
However, at the end of the 17th century, sea monsters start to disappear from maps. European understanding of science was growing, and the printing press made the spread of realistic images easier. “As technology advanced, as our understanding of the oceans and navigation advanced, more emphasis was placed on human’s ability to master the watery element: to sail on it and conduct trade on it,” Van Duzer told Lapham’s. “And thus images of the dangers of the sea, while they certainly did not immediately disappear from maps in the 17th century, became less frequent over time, and images of ships became more common.”
There were still illustrations on maps, but they were far more pragmatic. Ships indicated areas of safe passage, while drawings of fish and whales showed good fishing areas. On one map from the early 17th century, vignettes illustrated how to kill and process a whale. “Whales, the largest creatures in the ocean, are no longer monsters but rather natural marine storehouses of commodities to be harvested,” wrote Van Duzer. Some of the mystery is gone as the sea becomes another resource rather than a churning darkness to be feared.
Just when you think that we’ve lost that sense of awe at the sea, captured in these old maps and texts, we are reminded that much remains to be discovered in the ocean. This year, both the giant squid and the 15-foot megamouth shark were filmed for the first time, and there is still plenty to learn about each. We’re still dazzled by bioluminescent light displays in the deep, or the surreal, shimmering movements of schools of millions of tiny fish. The awe continues—it’s just based on fact rather than fantasy.
Learn more about the ocean at the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.
October 7, 2013
There have been some interesting creatures popping up in the Arctic. Canadian hunters have found white bears with brown tints—a cross between Ursus maritimus, the polar bear, and Ursus arctos horribilis, the grizzly. A couple of decades ago, off the coast of Greenland, something that appeared to be half-narwhal, half-beluga surfaced, and much more recently, Dall’s porpoise and harbor porpoise mixes have been swimming near British Columbia.
In “The Arctic Melting Pot,” a study published in the journal Nature in December 2010, Brendan Kelly, Andrew Whiteley and David Tallmon claim, ”These are just the first of many hybridizations that will threaten polar diversity.” The biologists speculated a total of 34 possible hybridizations (pdf).
Arctic sea ice is melting, and fast—at a rate of 30,000 square miles per year, according to NASA. And, some scientists predict that the region will be ice-free within about 40 years. “Polar bears are spending more time in the same areas as grizzlies; seals and whales currently isolated by sea ice will soon be likely to share the same waters,” says Kelly and his colleagues in the study. Naturally, there will be some interbreeding.
Such mixed offspring are hard to find. But, thanks to technology and the creative mind of artist Nickolay Lamm, they’re not hard to envision.
Say a harp seal (Phoca groenandica) mates with a hooded seal (Cystophora crostata), or a bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) breeds with a right whale (Eubalaena spp.). What would the offspring look like? Dina Spector, an editor at Business Insider, was curious and posed the question to Lamm.
This past spring, Lamm, who creates forward-looking illustrations from scientific research, produced scenes depicting the effect of sea level rise on coastal U.S. cities over the next few centuries, based on data reported by Climate Central, for the news outlet. Now, building off Spector’s question, he has created a series of digitally manipulated photographs—his visions of several supposed Arctic hybrids.
“In that Nature report, it was just a huge list of species which could cross breed with one another. I feel that images speak a lot more,” says Lamm. “With these, we can actually see the consequences of climate change.”
Lamm first selected several of the hybridizations listed in the study for visual examination. He then picked a stock photo of one of the two parent species (shown on the left in each pairing), then digitally manipulated it to reflect the shape, features and coloring of the other species (on the right). Blending these, he derived a third photograph of their potential young.
To inform his edits in Photoshop, the artist looked at any existing photographs of the crossbred species. “There are very, very few of them,” he notes. He also referred to any written descriptions of the hybrids and, enlisting the help of wildlife biologist Elin Pierce, took into account the dominant features of each original species. In some cases, Lamm took some artistic merit. He chose to illustrate the narwhal-beluga mix, for example, with no tusk, when Pierce suggested that the animal may or may not have a very short tooth protruding from its mouth.
Biologists are concerned about the increasing likelihood of this crossbreeding. “As more isolated populations and species come into contact, they will mate, hybrids will form and rare species are likely to go extinct,” reports Nature.
Many critics of Lamm’s series have argued that these hybrids may just be a product of evolution. But, to that, Lamm says,”Climate change is a result of us humans and [this is] not just some natural evolution that would happen without us.”
About the project itself, he adds, “I am personally concerned about the environment, and this is just my way of expressing my worry about climate change.”