New seaweed exhibition in Madrid: a collaboration that inspires
Climate change, visual art, the intersection of art and technology – how are these connected to UC Santa Cruz and beyond?
The short answer is algae, a fascinating and powerful group of organisms. The longer answer is about several artists, scientists, and designers who have come together to raise awareness about algae. These people, known as The Algae Society: Bio Art & Design Lab, explore the power of algae and create exhibitions around the world while using algae as a “non-human research partner”. Their new exhibition is MIKROS: An Occult World (Where MIKROS: a hidden world) which opened its doors on November 11 at Madrid Planetarium in Spain and continues until January 31.
MIKROS is a new multi-sensory audiovisual exhibition that invites viewers to enter a hidden world of drifting algae as an immersive artistic and scientific experience. MIKROS aims to create an imaginary world of unicellular algae, cyanobacteria or neglected foraminifera to support life on Earth.
“We hope MIKROS visitors will leave the show feeling the power and curiosity of algae as an incredible species supporting life as we know it on the planet,” said Jennifer Parker, Co-Founder of the Algae Society. and UCSC Arts and Digital Arts. & professor of new media. “Our wish is that the exhibition arouses joy and emotion while respecting the biodiversity of our planet.”
Parker is the founding director of the OpenLab Collaborative Research Center at UC Santa Cruz. She co-founded The Algae Society in 2019 with several artists and scientists, including José Carlos Espinel, who resides in Madrid and is director/organizer of The Society’s Madrid operations. He is an art professor at Bellas Artes Universidad Complutense in Madrid, where he created the research group Sostenibilidad, Ciencia y Arte, or Sustainability, Science and Art (SCIART).
Parker and Espinel co-organized MIKROS and contributed works as artists. One of their goals with MIKROS is “to bring people of all generations together to be as inspired by algae as we are,” Parker says. In addition to founding directors Parker and Espinel, there are several founding members and participants from around the world.
Society members hope that by visiting MIKROS, people will be motivated to learn more.
“We want to be a conversation starter for people – to deliver an embodied experience that includes all of the human senses and engages people in real time to explore and feel the creativity of the ocean and human efforts to embrace wonder. and fear,” Parker says.
When The Algae Society creates exhibits, it uses a variety of algae species. These range from the microscopic scales of phytoplankton and chlorophytes to giant kelp in the Pacific Northwest and sargassum blooms in the Atlantic Ocean. MIKROS primarily focuses on “micro scales”, but larger algae and kelp will also be present.
Inspiration for the Algae Society
The roots of The Algae Society go back many years. Parker established OpenLab, a faculty-run center focused on interdisciplinary research spanning science, art, technology, and community, in 2010. In 2012, she worked on a project called Blue Trail: Imagination + Innovation for Ocean Sustainability. Gene Felice, then a graduate student in the Digital Arts and New Media MFA program, worked with Parker at OpenLab.
“He came up with the idea of creating a project with phytoplankton as part of this initiative,” she says. “Soon after, Gene accepted a professorship and established his own studio/lab (Coaction lab), allowing us to continue working together and developing interdisciplinary mixed media projects with phytoplankton.”
In 2018 Parker and Felice invited artists and scientists from around the world working at the intersection of art, technology, design and ecology to expand what they had done with phytoplankton to include all species of algae. Parker says the open collaboration hatched the idea of being a “society” that could engage locally and globally.
The ideas behind OpenLab are fundamentally linked to the philosophy of The Algae Society. Four founding members of The Society—Dr. Juniper Harrower and David Harris, in addition to Espinel and Felice, worked with Parker at OpenLab as graduate students.
“UC Santa Cruz is a special place to experiment and push the boundaries of what’s possible.” They all share a deep interest and connection to their research beyond the boundaries of any discipline. OpenLab has helped fund and support projects they were working on and tapped into the inherently human need for creativity to support the development of knowledge – as individuals curious about the world and our position as humans on the planet,” Parker said.
Working together across the arts and sciences allows them to share resources, push the boundaries of interdisciplinary work, and support more opportunities for public engagement around climate change issues, which is central to motivation collective of OpenLab.
Everything Parker does as a professor and director of OpenLab comes from her roots as a creative practitioner.
“Whether we call it teaching, practice or service, it all has the potential to transform society. I see how we live, work and teach as one piece that we can contribute to the community. This belief is also part of cultural identity that I bring to my position at UC Santa Cruz.
Fun fact about seaweed
Did you know that algae first appeared in this world over a billion years ago? These were specifically “single-celled algae”. By producing oxygen, algae have changed our planet. Algae have undergone some changes since then. Today, algae contribute nearly 70% of the Earth’s oxygen and absorb up to half of our CO2. You can find out more on The Algae Society’s website and, of course, by visit the exhibition in Madrid!