WILMINGTON – Rockweed is tacked to a wall among other various seaweed that Jennifer Parker has been collecting for years, along with a few pieces from UNCW assistant professor Gene Felice.
“A lot of people don’t realize seaweed is part of the algae family,” Felice said during a talk for CAM’s latest art exhibit, “Confluence.”
The exhibit is hosted by The Algae Society, co-founded by Felice and Parker, and now consisting of seven core members worldwide. Parker and Felice culled 30 artists and scientists to provide an insightful and artful look at the effects algae has on our planet in “Confluence.” The multi-sensory exhibit explores historical and modern ways to view the study of algae through portraits, interactive projections, videos, and more.
“We try to have a dialogue and evolve with the subjects we’re exploring,” Felice said.
Algae is the most important organism that photosynthesizes on Earth, providing oxygen to plants and food for aquatic life. Scientists estimate it makes up anywhere from 50% to 80% of our planet’s oxygen.
On colorful pods, throughout the front room of the museum, pictures are displayed in circular, eco-friendly frames — handbuilt by Felice out of biodegradable materials, such as wood and corn-based plastic, made from a 3D printer. The Visions of Algae — created by Felice, Parker, and Dr. Juniper Harrower (UC Berkeley) — reveals the organisms in their “beautiful geometry,” Felice said. Some photos are documented as far away as space, others are enlarged micro-organisms illuminating aspects not discernible to the naked eye.
Abstract colors splatter and breathe in videos; one showing algae turning and shifting like a kaleidoscope. Participants can view imagery through a microscope, which projects onto a wall nearby. Another video in the exhibit runs microscopy of algae that grows in CAM’s pond.
Felice worked with Dr. Catharina Alves-de-Souza — and the algal resource collection at UNCW’s Center for Marine Science — to assess the organisms in the pond and how they grow. They scooped water samples and found chlorophyte, a green algae, grows in the freshwater. It produces long, blue and green strands that resemble seagrass, but really they are algal cell chains.
“We’re starting to look at the swings that are happening there,” Felice said, “when seasons get really warm in August and during drought conditions versus when it rains and what’s flushing in from our surrounding neighborhoods.”
If not in balance, the algae can mix into a toxic bacteria. It has posed a threat to animals that swim in Wilmington ponds during summer months. “So often we like to demonize algae and not the source of what causes it to grow out of control and become concentrated,” Felice said.
Those sources include an overabundance of fertilizer running off lawns, the erosion of river banks, deforestation, stagnant water, too much light, too much heat, among other factors that adversely impact the algae’s health. When imbalanced, its vital role in aquatic ecosystems, as the energy base of the food web, becomes degraded.
“It’s what we try to explore in a show like this,” Felice said. “We try to talk about not just the beauty of this wide range of organisms but also our relationship with them, our affects on them. We hope people walk out of ‘Confluence’ thinking about some of those complications and how we’re connected.”
‘Cabinet of curiosities’
For years, Felice has accumulated large and small samples of seaweed, such as sea kelp from the Pacific Northwest and rockweed from the coast of Maine. After cleaning and pressing each specimen, he dips it in a mixture of pine resin and beeswax.
“It really just brings out the detail and all the little surface textures,” he said, while pointing to a piece of rockweed.
Predominant up north, rockweed is now moving down to the shores of the Outer Banks. “As climate change warms our waters, it keeps going further south,” Felice said. “It will be in South Carolina and Florida, eventually.”
The ramifications of its expansion is yet to be known. It’s not necessarily invasive, nor does it outcompete other species of seaweed, Felice clarified. Sargassum — which makes an appearance in a different part of “Confluence” — still remains the abundant seaweed on local shores, a brown-reddish algae that travels up from the Caribbean in the warmer seasons. It’s known to be beneficial to sea turtles and provide food for birds, but too much can clog waterways and impede turtle hatchlings. Also, it creates hydrogen-sulfide toxic fumes, essentially releasing the smell of sulfur.
“And humans don’t really like smelly beaches,” Felice quipped.
While rockweed has its purposes as well — providing an ideal nesting ground for crabs and Periwinkles, assuaging horse indigestion, and enriching soil in gardens — its introduction as a new species locally will inevitably cause an imbalance. The aftereffects of that disproportion are continuously being studied.
“Scientists are mapping it, spotting it, taking notes: two more miles, 10 miles, 15 miles,” Felice said. “Eventually, when it’s regularly here, we’re gonna have to deal with it. You gain one thing, you lose another, right? This particular fish, that particular bird, how coral grows, a shark community area. There are always ripple effects.”
Variations of seaweed pop outward from the CAM wall, their shadows creating a 3D effect. It’s a complementary companion to the adjacent wall’s 19th century herbarium wallpaper, created out of digital scans of seaweed that Parker took from archives at University of California at Santa Barbara. It features 100 years of kelp and seaweed.
“In the 19th century, particularly for women, it became an empowering thing to collect seaweed,” Felice said, “because proper women of the time were wearing really long skirts and dresses, but if they became seaweed collectors, it was acceptable to wear these special kind of pants and be seen out in public.”
A door situated in the middle of the herbarium wallpapered wall opens to the “Confluence” bioart lab.
“I call it the cabinet of curiosities,” Felice said, while leading the group on his art talk into a dimly lit room.
It was filled with 3D printed sculptures, such as coccolithophore, unicellular phytoplankton known to also produce chalk. A bio-incubator, donated by UNCW’s Center for Marine Sciences, churns. Felice calls it a “life-support system” for algae, infusing CO2 and fresh oxygen with light.
In the lab, red-green, nontoxic, freshwater algae grows. The artists take liquid from the bio-incubator and drop it into petri dishes. Light projects images of various marine life onto the dishes. The algae then grows to mimic the imagery. The concept was developed by Felice and Harrower.
“It’s a bio emulsion process,” Felice said, explaining how one had been in the lab for a week. It takes approximately a month for the image to take full shape.
“You can see there’s the beginning of a red outline of a squid here,” he said, pointing to a clear circle. “You can see its shape is starting to fill in — there’s green starting to grow around it. Eventually, with more time, all the detail of the image will start to grow in with algae.”
When the image is complete, Felice will move the dish to one of the shelves to remain on display throughout the exhibit. The idea is to show “different animals that people have connections to that depend on algae to live,” he said.
For instance, turtles and manatees are protected from UV light by the algae that grows on their shells and backs. When it gets too long, fish come and nibble on it, trimming the algae’s growth, which in turn helps turtles and manatees properly swim.
Just as well, octopi depend on it as an integral part of their diet.
“Everything has to be in balance,” Felice iterated.
‘Open-ended learning systems’
Aside from captivating the minds of adults, “Confluence” also aims to spark intrigue among youth. Felice’s daughter was the inspiration behind one portion of the kids corner in the exhibit.
One day while in his studio, Felice had leftover pine resin he was molding into square blocks and adding spirulina powder — a blue-green algae with natural blue pigments, often consumed by humans for its antioxidants. His daughter took the blocks and put them on a whiteboard, stacking them to make a house.
“And it dawned on me: ‘Oh, this is an open-ended learning system.’ So I made more and more and more of them,” Felice said.
He embedded seaweed in each blue-green block, which are spread out on a backlit board for kids to play with at CAM. Next to it are digital microscopes and magnifying glasses to view algal organisms.
Books nearby for 3-year-olds to adults cover topics surrounding water, such as waste issues affecting the ocean and freshwater streams and rivers. There is also a seaweed identification guide. iPad games that The Algae Society created around ocean health will be added in coming weeks, Felice said.
“We’re trying to give a range of things that inspire kids to think differently,” Felice told an audience of 20 or so.
Beside the library is an installation of cells Felice designed and had woodworker Chris Perryman fabricate from local cypress wood. Each cell is cast with a colorful pine-resin windowpane that resembles seaglass. A peephole, as installed on doors, provides a glimpse into the underwater sphere of algae.
“When you look in, the world on the inside is bigger than what’s on the outside,” Felice explained. “I call it the Microverse.”
One drop of water would reveal thousands of phytoplankton — food for marine life. “It’s just so vast, so I was trying to get a little bit of that feeling here,” he said.
Each peek offers a different experience; some are just visions of floating algae, others are movies that tell stories about it. Two videos feature animations created by kids, one by third graders at Wilmington School for the Arts, where Felice’s wife works. Her class captured the story about the Sargasso Sea and sea turtles.
The rest of the cells display work by different Algae Society members, Felice said.
With its outreach founded in exploration, the group had one of its most influential audiences tune in at the 2020 climate conference, CLP 25, held in Madrid. Felice said they were able to present their work to world leaders, and see firsthand how relatable and accessible combining art and science is.
“The goal is to move the conversation of climate change beyond data and graphs,” he said, “to bring artists and scientists together in this kind of interdisciplinary collaborative model to tell the whole story, the bigger picture. The more people we can get in the room talking and sharing these ideas, the better. And that’s what The Algae Society is about: different people from different disciplines with different expertise coming together to have a more diverse set of eyes looking at a problem and coming up with more solutions.”
“Confluence” continues through May, with an Earth Day celebration planned Friday, Apr. 22. Every other Thursday, Felice hosts “Bioluminescence” at dusk, around 6 p.m. (Feb. 10, 17, Mar. 3, 17, 31 and Apr. 14). The map-projecting show utilizes colorful lights that beam through the gallery space onto a window at the front of CAM, showing algal images on a vinyl installation, “Pond Scum,” by Madison Creech. It can be viewed from inside and outside the gallery.
More information on The Algae Society can be found here.
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