A little-known but crucial means of removing carbon from the atmosphere – the siphonophore, which lives in the so-called twilight zone of the sea – will be illuminated in a video projection by a Danish artist collective during UN Climate Week.
The siphonophore is a bizarrely beautiful creature. Like a coral reef, it consists of individual parts, the so-called zooids, which fulfill special functions. “Some are digestive systems, some are swimmers, and some are reproductive organs,” said Heidi Sosik, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “But they all come together. It’s an interesting metaphor for humanity to think about. “
In the coming week, from September 21 to 24, a siphonophore will perform a sweeping, pulsing dance every evening between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. in a light projection more than 150 meters high on the entire north facade of the building of the UN Secretariat. discussing how to counteract man-made climate change, the video “Vertical Migration” aims to draw attention to the animal’s deep-sea carbon removal system.
“It’s a gathering where world leaders meet and decide on the future of the planet,” Rasmus Nielsen, one of the three founders of the politically-minded Danish art collective Superflex that made the video, said in a Zoom interview. “It seems that they forgot to invite someone. It’s like a birthday party and you forget to invite an uncle. ”What has been overlooked, said Nielsen, is all other species whose fate depends on human activity.
Superflex decided to highlight the siphonophore as a representative of the mesopelagic zone of the sea, the so-called twilight zone, which receives little to no sunlight. The residents of the twilight zone are eaten by more noticeable creatures such as tuna and swordfish. At least as important, however, is one’s own activity as a consumer, which removes carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. “They come up at night when they can hide from their enemies and eat carbon-rich organisms, and set when the sun comes up to hide in this deep twilight zone,” said Sosik.
It is estimated that two to six billion tons of carbon are sucked into the twilight zone each year and stored there indefinitely. That is a multiple of the CO2 emissions of all cars worldwide. “The carbon pump we are talking about is hugely important,” said Peter de Menocal, director of the oceanic institution. “If this disappeared, the atmospheric carbon dioxide would rise by more than 50 percent. These organisms make the earth habitable. “
He added, “This is a very humble call to action, showing a humble organism that itself illustrates the importance of working together.”
Superflex artists encountered the siphonophore in the Coral Sea off the northeast coast of Australia in 2019 while leading an expedition sponsored by TBA21 Academy, a 10-year non-profit organization in Europe dedicated to ocean awareness and conservation dedicates through art. “One evening a marine biologist took us on a black water dive,” said Nielsen. “You go in the middle of the night and witness this huge migration that takes place every night when these creatures come to the surface. They have no arms or two eyes and are not afraid of you. They come straight at you. You have never seen anything like it. “
When Superflex was asked by ART 2030, a Denmark-based non-profit organization that aims to recruit artists from around the world to highlight the UN’s sustainable development agenda, to create a work for Climate Week, they thought of the Siphonophore. “We had a strong sense of community with these creatures, which is strange because they’re not like a golden retriever,” said Nielsen. “We’re stuck with the pandas and elephants that appear in a Disney movie. We have decided, let’s invite this, an unusual guest. It’s like all science fiction films you’ve ever seen, every night in the world. “
Filming a siphonophore is a challenge. “Sometimes they come and stick to your goggles,” said Nielsen. “Sometimes they are five meters long and when you approach they break. They’re like tissue. ”Nielsen and his colleague Jakob Fenger spent an hour on a drop line on a black water dive to record a few seconds of footage. (The third Superflex director, Bjornstjerne Christiansen, was unable to make the trip this year.)
Based on their videos and those of other divers, they developed animated simulations to create a 20-minute piece that runs in an endless loop. “We made something that was a combination of reality and animation to make you feel close to the creatures,” said Nielsen. “In the film you can see a change of perspective. At the beginning we look at the siphonophore, then it turns and you can almost see the world from an animal perspective. A siphonophore has no eyes. How can you see the world from the perspective of the siphonophore? Through your imagination. “
In parallel to “Vertical Migration”, Superflex has created another work, “Interspecies Assembly”, which is to be installed in Central Park near the Naumburg band. It’s a 46-foot circle bordered by seven large slabs of pink marble with the words of a contract engraved on them. “By entering the stone circle, you accept the contract to remain inactive for at least five minutes,” said Fenger. “To understand other living things on the planet, you have to be quiet and listen.” Superflex chose pink marble as an allusion to the coral algae that coral polyps eat and color a reef. “The marble will be there a lot longer than we have,” said Christiansen.
Although the existence of siphonophores has long been known, research into their behavior is still in its infancy. “Part of the reason they are so difficult to study is that we traditionally learn about deep-sea creatures by casting a net,” said Sosik. “Something like a siphonophore does not survive being caught in a net.” Your project in Woods Hole developed and activated a slow-moving robot called the Mesobot, which stealthily sneaks around the depths of the ocean. Since the mesobot creates little turbulence, the siphonophore does not consider it a threat and flees. The research team also uses shadowgraph images that analyze the curvature of rays of light that collide with the gelatinous organisms. “We are able to turn off cameras and take 15 frames per second for hours,” she said. “They are incredibly beautiful when they are in their habitat.”
The enormous amount of organic matter in the twilight zone has piqued the interest of commercial fisheries who could harvest it for fishmeal for aquaculture and for the production of krill oil and fish oil. “Humans have a history of overexploiting protein sources in the seas,” Sosik said. Since most of the twilight zone lies outside of territorial waters, international cooperation is necessary to protect it.
By illuminating the secretariat building with “Vertical Migration”, Superflex brings to light a massive and vital phenomenon that is in the dark. “Sometimes research that is peer-reviewed and ends in a scientific paper has very limited effects on a broader audience or reality,” said Markus Reymann, director of the TBA21 Academy, which works with ART 2030 on the project . “This is the first time we’re doing something on this scale. The flashy, lively, huge monumental thing is an exception, an opportunity to communicate something iconic. “
Although the technology used to produce “Vertical Migration” is new, the goal is to achieve what artists traditionally seek – to shed light on a feature of life that is usually overlooked. “The oldest trick in the book of art is for people to fall into something they don’t know,” said Nielsen. “We hope that people will stay two minutes and begin to empathize with the siphonophore. It’s like a hypnotizing alien that can be enjoyed from afar. “
And if the conservation-conscious creators have their way, this indulgence will raise public awareness to a level that motivates delegates in the building to take steps to stop climate change and protect the earth.