Earth Day art installation deepens the human connection to water, creates illusory experience at CAM

Digital artist Gene Felice live-codes environmental images and micro-organisms in FlowILM, taking place at CAM on Thursday night as part of Earth Day 2021. The light and art installation also features artists Jeremy Roberts, Kimathi Moore and Janice Lancaster, who are all part of the Algae Society. (Port City Daily/Courtesy of Gene Felice)

WILMINGTON — The human relationship to water is an important one. It makes up 60% of adult bodies and 71% of the planet. It can be a life-sustaining element as much as a life-threatening force. 

These concepts will be celebrated on Earth Day at Cameron Art Museum (CAM) with a one-night art and science installation, FlowILM — a free light and sound experience that gets underway at dusk around the museum pond.

The project comes from UNCW digital-media assistant professor, Gene Felice, who studies science-based art through 3D printing, interactive electronics, video-projection mapping, augmented reality and data visualization. Felice has been working with light/projection artist Jeremy Roberts, sound and electronic artist Kimathi Moore, and dancer Janice Lancaster to create FlowILM. 


The artists are part of the Algae Society — performers, scientists and researchers who utilize algae as a way to communicate and spark conversations about the environment and art. The society has hosted events from Egypt to Australia, Spain to the United States to show how algae functions symbiotically with humans, and can help fight climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and replacing it with oxygen.

Though the four artists have been preparing FlowILM for a month now, the multi-sensory installation actually started in Maine in 2016. Felice wanted to host an art installation in the Bangor water district. He projected images of water and micro-organisms onto the town’s historic water tower, the Thomas Hill standpipe, built in the 1800s. 

“It started as just trying to tell the story of our relationship with water,” Felice said. “In that particular instance, it was about freshwater and the whole water-treatment system — and asking, ‘Where does our water come from and where does it go?’”

That event evolved into a multi-day biennial celebration in Maine at the Penobscot River at Fort Knox, a Civil War historic site. Felice would invite artists and performers from around the world to create various 2D and 3D media, all addressing water and rivers emptying into oceans.

“Very similar to the Cape Fear,” Felice said, which spills into the Atlantic. “I’ve been wanting to do something here, now that I have gotten to know the Cape Fear River over the last three years and the unique ecosystems that we have — and, you know, I’m still just scratching the surface. But I’m starting to get to know researchers at UNCW’s Marine Science Center, as well as folks working with freshwater in biology.”

On Thursday night Felice will be live-coding 3D images of organisms unique to the Cape Fear River and our coastal ecosystems that will look as if the images are rising from the museum pond. Others will be projected onto CAM’s building and even on a live dancer. Moore will be creating sounds in tandem to the imagery. The audio is crafted from mics submerged into the pond and noise from the natural world. 

“We’ll have sound samples from the frogs that are actually in the pond,” Felice said, “and some droning manipulated layers that Kimathi makes — what he calls ‘soundscapes,’ very ambient sound experiences.”

Felice said Lancaster will be creating movements in response to the sounds. Felice, too, will be playing off of Moore’s sonic waves to live-code the imagery.

“Janice is in the projection,” he explained, positioned in front of a green screen. “She can’t see anything; it’s all just abstract blankets of light hitting her, but she can react to Kimathi, and I can react to Kimathi. So Kimathi becomes our rhythm; sound is what connects us.”

Felice will create seaweed-type formations, algae and tentacles that will seem as if Lancaster is pushing and pulling them. He will mash it up with pre-recorded imagery, representing freshwater and saltwater, but also bring in human elements. His goal is to elicit philosophical responses that leave viewers questioning what they’re seeing, and how their imprint may impact nature.

Video courtesy of Gene Felice

“What happens to humanity when they lose their connection with nature? How do we become fragmented — how do we lose our balance? How do we become part of this unbalanced world, not just separate from it?” Felice asked rhetorically. 

He also has images of organisms from the microscopy lab at UNCW, formulated with the help of biology and marine biology professor Alison Taylor. They compiled many coccolithophores — “where chalk comes from,” Felice said. The micro-organisms are phytoplankton, key players in the carbon cycle, and are integral to the ocean’s ecosystem. 

When the artists combine their images, sound and movement with pre-recorded works, it all intermingles. It’s what Felice calls the “fun part of the project”: Having viewers question if what they’re seeing is being done live or not, and even guessing whether it’s real. 

In one instance it looks like a wave emerges from algae out of the CAM pond — almost like magic. 

“Sometimes that algae is beneficial, sometimes it’s not,” Felice explained of the organism’s role in his live-coding. 

Felice projects half into the pond and half out by using equipment that puts out nearly 10,000 lumens of light (a normal home projector releases 2,000 lumens for comparison). Specialized software allows him to manipulate the light even more, adding texture and movement.

“I change the color, the motion, the shape,” he listed. “I can also mask it to the edge of the pond so that it looks like the dancer’s literally coming out of the water — or the pattern of light that I’m putting out is hardly in the water.”

Sometimes he said it looks like images are floating in space.

“It becomes this moment of awe and curiosity,” Felice said. “I think everybody’s mind shifts into this childlike state, like ‘What am I seeing? What is this? Someone’s playing a trick.’ I think that’s what I love about projection-mapping so much: I get to be an illusionist.”

Playing with the public’s perception of art, Felice said, keeps them engaged as they move from section to section in FlowILM. The Earth Day installation encourages the audience to be mobile — walking around the grounds to see and engage in the work. In the end, however, Felice hopes it connects people to water more. 

“To understand a little bit deeper, or just feel a sense of empathy from the micro-organisms all the way up to the macro-organisms that we already care a lot about,” he said.

Thursday’s event is only a precursor to a larger exhibit, “Confluence,” that Felice is working on opening at CAM in September. The seven-month indoor installation will take up two spaces in the Brown Wing and will remain on display through Earth Day 2022. The exhibit essentially creates its own ecosystem out of technology, art and science. 

Felice plans on putting sensors in CAM’s pond to detect water-quality issues. He’s also planting native species foliage to help purify the environment, and will collect its data to put back into the exhibit live.

“We’re going to be planting some floating island ecosystems platforms you can put native species plants into that actually help filter the water and take out complex chemicals, as well as microplastics and some other pollutants,” he said. “They’re going to be on the surface of these little islands that are going to respond with light and sound and color that they pick up and transmit back to the gallery.”

The exhibit will address PFAs in the Cape Fear River as well. Felice said individuals will be able to bring in water samples to do their own microscopy experiments. 

“There are already a lot of people doing amazing things around water quality issues in the area,” he said, hoping to foster those partnerships further. While the 2021 iteration of FlowILM came together quickly, Felice said he’s planting seeds for something grander.

“[It] gets the conversation started, gets people interested in talking about what we’re doing,” he said, “and then we will meet here again on Earth Day 2022 with the second Flow event, and bring in more artists, scientists, colleges, and nonprofits, and have a whole series and wide range of creativity and research.”

The goal is to grow it out annually in Wilmington.

CAM will have chairs out at Thursday night’s event, though deputy director Heather Wilson said they’re encouraging visitors to bring picnics and blankets to relax on the grounds. 

“I can’t think of anything quite like this that has ever been performed in the Cape Fear region,” Wilson said. “The connection between art and science is really compelling.”

Mapping projections will be on the side of CAM’s building as part of FlowILM on Thursday evening, created by Gene Felice and Jeremy Roberts. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Gene Felice)

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