Oceans 4.0 in Autumn 2019 was the first show I curated for FACT Liverpool as its new director. It heralded our programme theme for 2020, The Living Planet, through which we would focus all elements of the programme on the environmental challenges facing our planet.
The exhibition presented three artists’ projects by Marco Barotti, Anna Dumitriu and Alex May, and Robertina Šebjanič and Gjino Šutić that monitor, reflect or imagine the future of our threatened oceans. They were selected from new work emerging from recent artists’ residencies organised across Europe by the European Media Art Platform (EMAP), as part of FACT’s contribution to the programme in 2019.
Having a long-standing interest in the sea and in how working across disciplines is critical to finding solutions, these projects stood out for me, sparking memories of the 2016 NAKFI conference in which I participated. The day after Trump’s election, I had flown to Los Angeles to take part in this 3-day multidisciplinary event intended to foster interdisciplinary research into the oceans. Although there was a sense of despair among the participants about the future of the oceans, the oceanographers, marine scientists, artists, technologists and others focused on applying their creativity and expertise to the challenge of generating new research, innovation and social engagement to benefit the oceans.*
The projects that I selected from the EMAP residencies for Oceans 4.0 showcased innovative and future-thinking artist-led interdisciplinary thinking about how art, science and technology might help to monitor and communicate critical changes taking place in our oceans. They are projects that also poetically and imaginatively help to connect the public imagination to these issues in ways that are hopeful despite the precarity of our oceans. The title Oceans 4.0 references the trend towards automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies and processes.
In nature, clams are detectors of pollutants; they serve as tiny filtration systems. Inspired by this natural phenomenon, Marco Barotti’s work Clams is a kinetic sound installation triggered by water quality. In Clams, real-time data is streamed by a sensor and converted into an audio signal. The audio signal generates a live evolving soundscape which initiates the opening and closing movements of the Clam sculptures. Sound and motion unite to create an experience that allows the audience to see and hear the water quality in real-time. The Clams sculptures are made from recycled industrial plastic waste.
Robertina Šebjanič and Gjino Šutić’s project aqua_forensic asks ‘How do the oceans feel our impact?’ Their project illuminates the invisible (pharmaceutical) chemical pollutants, residues of human consumption, ‘monsters’ in the waters. The installation documented the artists’ ‘in vitro’ experiments, showing microorganisms dying in weak solutions of pharmaceuticals (20,000 times weaker than the average human dose), suggesting the kind of impact we are having on water habitats and lifeforms (from micro to macro levels). The project combines art, science and citizen science, opening a discussion about our solidarity and empathy with waters beyond human perception, and the relationship between the microbial seas and humans who are aquaforming the water systems around the planet.
ArchaeaBot by Anna Dumitriu & Alex May is an underwater robotic installation that explores what ‘life’ might mean in a post climate change future. The project is based on the latest research about archaea: micro-organisms that are believed to be the oldest life-forms on Earth, originally evolving near hot deep sea vents. Some archaea species are highly acid tolerant, feed on methane, or can live without oxygen. These life-forms will be ideally suited to the hot, acid rain polluted future that humans are in the process of creating. Archaea are simple creatures that have little control over the tails that help them swim about and feed, whereas the ArchaeaBot has an artificially intelligent neural network and uses machine learning to collect data and evolve in its underwater world.
The exhibition Oceans 4.0 was the precursor to FACT’s 2020 artistic programme theme, the Living Planet, which was intended as a year-long cultural inquiry looking at the role and function of art for representing, challenging and intervening in the environmental challenges we face and platforming diverse experts who can promote radical ways to live sustainably. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic and the fires and natural disasters we have seen since then have sadly demonstrated the difficult future we face and the need for hope and practical and creative actions, and moved much of the Living Planet programme online.
*Download a free pdf of the book of the NAKFI Deep Blue Seas conference here https://nap.nationalacademies.org/catalog/25027/discovering-the-deep-blue-sea-research-innovation-social-engagement or read free online at https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/25027/chapter/1