"SUBMERGED" is SciArt Center's most recent exhibition, and surrounds themes of water in its variety of forms and the creatures that inhabit it. Exhibit curator Marnie Benney asked artist Colleen Flanigan to share a bit about her work, and the artistic and scientific processes behind it:
Marnie Benney: Can you explain the relationship between your research and chosen medium and how one informs the other?
Colleen Flanigan: People fall in love at first site, and so it was with learning about coral restoration using the mineral accretion process. I fall in love with unfolding potential and adding innovative mediums to meet emerging challenges and make discoveries. Learning about electrified reefs as a means to help endangered corals and biodiversity has directed my trajectory for the past 13 years. My studies and practice in metalsmithing, sculpting, gardening, and working on skeletons for stop-motion animation puppets prepared me to perceive things as possible substrates - armatures to give support and be transformed by other materials, people, creatures, and plants. Creating evolving ocean habitats is my chosen niche. It is interdisciplinary and experimental, with each project having many phases and collaborators. To weave interconnected solutions to revive wild beauty and vitality, I’m working on R&D for a new vocabulary of aesthetics and fabrication that I’d like to use in upcoming projects.
Watching rigid metal, with it’s steely facade, be coated with calcium carbonate mineral deposits and then animated with swimming fish and colorful coral gives me hope in a time of heightened suffering from disasters and downer predictions. Art is a critical element in our global solutions. It was a great honor to represent at the COP13 Blue Economy event in Cancun last December along with three scientifically-led coral restoration projects. This September I was invited to join the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef Restoration Network, as the one artist amongst scientists. I look forward to cultivating those relationships and building the movement for coral regeneration. I’ve been migrating from creating art ABOUT ecology to the concept of art AS ecology - a fundamental piece of the holistic, messy progress of humanity seeking sustainability in the time of climate change and the Anthropocene.
MB: What do you think of the union of art and science?
CF: Art and science share the same roots of imagination, curiosity, and desire. They branch off a bit with art dominating the emotional and expressive limbs, and science reaching for proof and facts. Both assimilate senses, hunches, and results to blossom with truth. I couldn’t stop running with the tree analogy. Human intelligence takes the tendrils of art and science and intertwines them to grow interdependently in parallel. While in Mexico, I proposed a coral restoration experiment working with a small team of coral biologists and marine scientists at a government organization. They wanted to see how this process might help their rehabilitation efforts. I wanted the same, plus I was really excited to see how the calcium carbonate and other sea minerals would deposit onto the various steel mesh forms and how the corals would react. We had complementary skills and supplies to do a five month self-directed art-sci residency. I bowed to their careful data collection procedures for weighing and counting our test fragments. I was happy to be forming the metal screen, setting up the power supplies, attaching the corals, and measuring the water pH. Soon, they were altering the voltage and wondering about new forms, I was cleaning the tanks and writing all my observations, and the questions that came pouring out of us in response to our results united us looking to future possibilities. The traditional academic and professional cultures of Art and Science can be miles apart, but the individuals practicing usually have a lot of overlap, either innately or through study. I work with a number of people with degrees in both, and in my metalsmithing and other artwork, science plays a significant role. BioDesign and BioArt are definitely unifying genres for the dynamic SciArt terrain. With our livestreaming webcam in Cozumel, people from all backgrounds can participate in learning about corals, fish, and other organisms that swim by, and we hope to add more sensors and make other numerical data available to the public for their own interpretations through provocative artwork. It’s promising to see numerical information translated into sensory experiences powerful enough to move people to care about climate change, for example, and feel compelled to do something.
MB: What was your greatest learning when you were creating this artwork?
CF: You can’t force bureaucracy. Initially the project went smoothly. I designed the artwork, prepared the model, raised the initial funds through Kickstarter and private foundations, and headed to the Yucatán Peninsula eager to make a coral refuge sculpture with a diverse team. I believed a certain amount of willpower and commitment to plans could insist upon a timely conclusion. Contracts and permit issues came up between the government and Club Med, where we originally planned to install the sculpture as part of the Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA). As you can imagine, with the National Marine Park, tourism industry, and big corporations involved, there were a lot of unanticipated hurdles. My passion and naiveté inspired me to take this leap. I don’t regret it or the five years it took to install Zoe - A Living Sea Sculpture into the sea. I learned how to navigate difficult relationships with people in every field and multiple countries. I spent most of the past two and a half years in Puerto Morelos building networks in the region and learning the language and culture so I could work through the blocks. This project taught me more about politics, human nature, conflicting agendas, overcoming obstacles, letting go, and enjoying many unexpected detours than any other experience in my life. I have more tolerance for some things now, and much less for other things. In the end, the wait opened doors and expanded the scope of the project to include the livestreaming webcam. Other supporting elements and team members are now involved due to the location in Cozumel, making it a more successful artwork with better infrastructure. I will return in January to photo-document and work with the corals and volunteers, and take care of this living art that is still teaching me so much.
MB: If you had unlimited resources what would your next project be?
CF: Coral reefs around the world are in dire need of support if they are to survive in the coming years. They are crumbling from heating waters and ocean acidification. These devastated areas become barren of marine life and storm waves can just rip through with nothing to slow them down. With unlimited resources, I would visit many of these threatened sites to learn about the needs of the place, the community, and the wildlife to research, develop, and install large-scale underwater seascapes combining multiple methods of design and fabrication. I’ve been incubating ideas for a few years, and am ready for a residency to make models and prototypes. In Honduras, Ian Drysdale of Healthy Reefs has expressed interest in creating a reefscape in an area highly touristed and damaged, for example. From the British Virgin Islands to Florida to New Orleans to Australia to the Philippines, I would use unlimited time, funding, and permits to embark on some of these interdisciplinary works. We could map the seafloor to determine best placement to help slow the waves with these life supporting, permeable breakwaters. If the area is dependent on tourism and fishing, those factors play an important role in the designs. I would also work with the California Academy of Sciences coral biologists, and those in Australia and Mexico, to bring focused aesthetics and materials research to their programs for planting millions of corals and improving the odds of survival. While working on these physical reefs and Living Sea Sculptures, I would continue my current involvement with Virtual Reality (VR) as a means to highlight coral colonies through immersive art and story-telling. I would escape for hours making worlds with Tilt Brush, Gravity Sketch, and other VR and 360 mediums to bring a playful and interactive ocean and coral ecosystem to more people, especially those who are landlocked and will never visit the sea. Even with limited resources, I intend to work on these projects at whatever scale is possible and spend time learning new equipment and software to advance the creative vocabulary for human-made reefs using recent findings about coral settling patterns, preferences for substrates, and adaptations. Coral larvae, for example, use smell to find their permanent home. Creating a coral conservatory combining art, science, and technology is my fantasy.
To follow my work, https://www.patreon.com/LivingSeaSculpture for members to join the journey.