You’ll notice that the form of the piece (fig. 1) resembles that of the mesocosm bag (fig. 2). As I mentioned in an earlier post I was struck very early on in my residency by the form and presence of the experimental device.
(fig. 1) (fig. 2)
The idea of capturing a cylindrical sliver of ocean water within its intrinsic location and having the ability to manipulate certain qualities of that water fascinated me. My work previously had a lot to do with the movement, color and characteristics that were exhibited by littered plastics throughout urban and coastal landscapes. Having been previously exposed to that kind of thinking and observation, the giant plastic cylindrical bag of the mesocosm devices seemed a natural fascination. I imagined the bags, harnessed below steel buoyancy structures, moving and flowing with currents like jelly fish tendrils (these imaginations were later confirmed by Steve Archer). There’s always an observable dance in water–a constant motion that stirs and moves even the dead and the inanimate. However far I intermittently moved from my attraction to the mesocosm form, I unsurprisingly ended up back were I began my time at BLOS–contemplating massive cylinders
Translating Science to Art
The idea of taking scientific concepts, many of which I was unable to see or observe empirically, and transforming those concepts into visual art while remaining judicious and respectful of the methodical nature of science was challenging. I went into this residency with the understanding that I was not going to be the person who simply illustrated scientific concepts, diatoms, macroalgae cells, or anything of that nature. Ernst Haeckel’s Art Forms in Nature has always fascinated me. His illustrations are mind-blowingly intricate and lively, and his attention to composition sparks the inner printmaker and formalist flame within. However, I am not Ernst Haeckel. So, as in line with previous works of mine, I worked towards a more abstract translation. The abstract qualities of my work, mostly dependent on the layering of shapes to create organic patterns and spaces, are there, among other reasons, to inspire investigation and challenge perception. When things are less obvious, when we don’t quite know what we are looking at, I think that facilitates a greater contemplation of that thing–we dive deeper into our search for understanding. That idea is something intrinsic to scientific and artistic discovery.
Each cylindrical ring is one sheet of 7mil PVC (produced by Grafix) that was first roughed up with sandpaper and then screen printed on with white, black and five colored inks on both sides. All 6 rings are entirely composed of about 15 unique layers. Those layers were extracted digitally from photographs that were taken while looking at super-etched copper fragments under BLOS’s scanning electron microscope that I mentioned in an earlier post.
Those copper plates were made using a process in copper etching called “soft ground technique”. Each plate is covered with a roller, or brayer, in an inky acid resistant ground. While the ground is still wet, impressions are made into the inky surface in order to remove the ink and expose the copper in the shape/detail of the material with which you are making the impression. For example, many people experiment with impressing leaves and feathers in the plate, that when etched, inked up and printed can produce an image of leaves and feathers onto paper. In the case of my experiments I made my impressions with coralline algae, which I mentioned and shared some photographs of in an earlier post. After exposing the impressed plates to ferric chloride for 12-16hrs I was left with lots of copper fragments etched, in some cases, all the way through, and with shapes resembling the coralline algae I used during the soft ground technique.
The process of obtaining this imagery is intentionally intricately multi-pronged, and sometimes a bit convoluted. When I proceed in this way, although there is bit of decision making and agency involved in each step, the deeper I go the more removed I am from my handmade mark. I like to think that’s a process you see a lot in nature that’s removed from the mark of man and very multifaceted. The imagery in this piece is so multifaceted that at a certain point in the process the imagery is producing itself, in a sort of self-similar reproduction. At each step in the evolution of the imagery the previous step determines and births the next. Ultimately, however, the work is never without my mark in some way, to remove myself completely would be impossible.
Color and Light
Once I arrived at the last step in the image making process, I then proceeded to print each sheet of sanded PVC color by color and layer by layer. I started with the blue ring and made my way up. Each piece of plastic was first screen printed on the outside with black and on the inside with white, and subsequently with 5 others colors pertaining to the dominant color scheme again on the inside (over the white layer). Once the printing was completed each sheet of plastic was seemed together using a plastic adhesive to create the cylindrical rings that make up the whole form.
The black layers are most saturated from the outside, and become muted when one stands on the inside of the piece. It was Carlton’s idea, initially, to allow the piece to move so that at some point something or things would align, or could potentially align, perfectly. It was about chance and discovery. We ended up working through this idea and finalizing it in the form of color, which is printed solely on the inside of the plastic rings (however, because of the transparency of the plastic it’s still visible form the outside as well). I wanted there to be some encouragement or reward for those willing to take the extra step to go inside the piece, since so much of scientific and artistic discovery is dependent on that itch to look deeper, it seemed like an appropriate metaphor.
There are 6 dominant color schemes, one scheme per ring, that relate directly to the visible light spectrum. Light is color. Color does not really exist within a thing, but rather is a reflection, transmission and/or absorption of light. Light plays a huge role in the microbiology of the ocean, considering that much of that life uses photosynthesis for survival. Steve and I talked a lot about the pigments involved in algae and what types of pigments are needed in order to absorb as much light energy as possible at varying depths in the ocean. These conversations eventually informed the display of color shown in the final piece. From top down, the rings represent the relative light-water depth absorption of each color of the visible spectrum (excluding indigo). Red, for example is the first wavelength to be absorbed closest to the surface, and blue is the deepest penetrating wavelength and therefore the most ubiquitous color of open ocean.
(At night, the LED light shines a red/blue mixture that appears a neon light purple. This was almost purely an aesthetic choice, as most other colored lights drowned out or muted certain colors in the rings.)
That last thing I would like to note about the piece in relation to the science Steve and I engaged with is on the topic of gas exchange. I have mentioned the part about ocean acidification in an early post dedicated solely to that topic and how we found it related to the processes of etching that I use frequently in my practice. There were all sorts of interesting correlations to be made, but for the sake of brevity I won’t dive into them all. However, the concepts involved with gas exchange between certain microbes, the ocean and the atmosphere are really important parts of Steve and his team’s research. I broke down the idea of that exchange, the implications and the importance of a greater understanding of that exchange very basically in my first “How were got here” post.
Perhaps the most inconceivable part of my experience at Bigelow was learning a bit about gas exchange. When we talked about gases being magically diffused from ocean to atmosphere, the equilibrium that the whole biosphere seeks with chemical cycles, and the production of those gases by microbes was perhaps the most difficult to understand and certainly the most difficult to visualize. It’s the sort of stuff that if you don’t have all the fundamental understandings that lead up to the newer greater understandings you have a hard time situating in your layman brain as real. That’s a big challenge, i.e., the public reception of scientific research in general. You either have to know the concepts, procedures and history of science to understand directly what certain research is saying, or you have just have to trust that the process of peer reviewing and the collective understanding of the science community is a scrutinizing group of objective informers. What do you do to relay factuality to the general public, when they don’t understand the very proof provided to substantiate that fact? Anyways…I digress. The point being, this area was foggy for me and it was hard for my mind to base in reality without having the previous knowledge necessary to conceptualize such information. Steve and I had to trace way back to the rudiments of certain concepts in order for me to understand some of what he was sharing. So it was even more challenging to feel like I was in a situation to translate something I was hardly, if at all, understanding. Yet, I think I can with the rest of the non-scientific staff at BLOS relay some of what is happening (which, again I go into in my last “How we got here” post).
This difficult to grasp gas exchange made its way into the final piece in the form of negative space. As you move up the piece the plastic rings reduce in size and the spaces between each ring grow. I wanted there to be a sort of increasing lightness to the piece as one moved upwards visually, to hint towards a diffusion or exchange of heaviness to lightness. This was intended to metaphorically nudge at the gas exchange that Steve and I discussed but also the decrease in pressure from the deep ocean to the higher atmosphere. Things literally get lighter. The use of a fine 15lb test monofilament to hang each ring from the one above gives the impression that each layer is floating above or below the next. It for me is as much about the printed plastic rings as it is about the space between them.
I could perhaps ramble on for much longer, but hopefully this conveys the general ideas floating around this piece and the relationships we tried to make to the influencing research. Thank you to those of you who have taken the time to read these often chaotic, unorganized writings. If I can say anything about this process to finalize my thoughts, I will say that it has proven a rewarding experience to immerse myself in something not only greater than myself, but far different than myself. I can’t see a more pertinent and important metaphor for this experience in our current point in history than that. This may be my last entry, so thank you again.
So many thanks also to the incredible people of Bigelow Laboratory. However they fit in within the magic there (e.g., facilities workers, lab techs, senior scientists…) they were of tremendous importance to the whole experience.