Sharing the Edge of the Sixth Shore: Artists and Scientists Converge at Lake Clifton
As an undergrad, I first majored in art, then English, and gravitated only toward the sciences that required the least math. That’s how I came to spend one hot Milwaukee summer illustrating a large and definitive collection of microfossils for my paleontology professor. Tucked away in the cool basement of the Thomas A. Greene Geological Museum, surrounded by Greene’s 19th century collection of Silurian specimens, I plugged away at my quiet task: look into the microscope, observe the relief and distinguishing features of each white, bean-shaped fossil, then translate what I saw into a stippled drawing with my Rapidograph. I was an ostracod illustrator.
Illustration of the ostracod Cypridina
Originally appeared in A Treatise of
Zoology, by E. Ray Lankester (1909).
It was a crude process by today’s imaging standards, crude then when photomicrographs could have been used to create the book plates. But ink work was what they wanted, and for a modest honorarium, I passed my days in that eye-straining and peaceful work, forced into an almost meditative level of observation.
The ostracods at first seemed boring as orzo: miniscule crustaceans, equipped with a bivalve shell—a kind of clammy shrimp—that could not compare with the shelved crinoids, trilobites, and cephalopods that Greene had collected well into his eighties and nineties, surreal and exotic proof that Wisconsin had once been the floor of a Paleozoic sea. Yet the tiny seed shrimp was commercially valued for biozonation of marine strata: drill down, find the right kind of fossilized ostracods, and you’ve probably hit oil shale. My implicit goal was to capture the visually faint and nuanced features that could be used to locate oil.
Back in English classes that fall, I found myself writing an ode to the ostracod. After so much careful observation, how is there not a poem in the messages sent from one life form to another through Paleolithic time? The microscope had offered its own brightly lit lyricism; the compelling narrative of the ostracod followed me long after I had stopped looking.
Today, more than 15,000 miles away from that museum in Milwaukee, south of Mandurah and in Western Australia’s Yalgorup National Park, a group of artists and scientists are gathering around the shores of Lake Clifton, where the lyric narratives of deep geologic time call to them. Their residencies in the long-term Adaptation project, begun with observation of the threatened ecosystems in and around the lake, are producing collaborative works that will incorporate narratives of creation, evolution, and human impacts.
Thrombolites at Lake Clifton, low water, February
Photo by Annamaria Weldon.
Adaptation, launched in 2009 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, is an initiative of SymbioticA, the Center of Excellence in Biological Arts at The University of Western Australia. Although Adaptation’s residents are in early stages of project development, I’ve been able to correspond with two who are negotiating the tidal terrain where scientific research and art meet.
For Dr. Perdita Phillips, that zone is a familiar studio. An artist/researcher whose process relies heavily upon walking and listening, Phillips is developing a soundscape project, The Sixth Shore, collecting in situ sounds from the natural environment and taking oral histories from the locals. She describes a process that will layer time and habitation, and result in an unexpected auditory experience that will break and recede over the listeners like waves as they stroll, wearing headphones.
Central to her collected subjects are the silent stars of brackish Lake Clifton, the thrombolites. These protected living rocks, formed over a span of nearly 2,000 years, consist of a complex community of microorganisms that precipitate mineral sediment. These microbialites create reefs far more slowly than coral, and rely upon the quiet work of photosynthetic cyanobacteria rather than the showy, invertebrate tactics of Anthozoa.
As a member of the coastal Yalgorup Lakes System, Lake Clifton is listed and protected under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands as a Wetland of International Importance, and is one of only two places in the world where thrombolites exist in water less salty than the ocean. As a laboratory for Adaptation, the Lake Clifton area features not only a window into the earliest beginnings of life as offered by the thrombolites, but also a door into the messy present, where development pressures, inadequate vegetative buffers, nutrient loading, drought, impacted groundwater, rising salinity, and an invasive fish species have resulted in an increasing rate of detrimental change.
There are plenty of story portals for the artists and scientists to enter. The creation tales of the indigenous Bindjareb Nyungars, historians’ accounts of marl mining and mullet canning, the sounds of the more than 80 species of water birds, endemic and migratory, that feed in the Yalgorup wetlands.
Poet Annamaria Weldon has been visiting the wetlands monthly since her Adaptation residency began. Her research phase includes taking notes and photographing the seasonal rise and fall of lake levels, as well as immersing herself in the languages of geology, botany, zoology, and meteorology. She is building a network of relationships with longtime residents of the lake and working as a community poet in nearby Mandurah—human contact that informs her understanding of the Yalgorup ecosystems. Her project, Sharing the Edge, will be a landscape journal, prose, and poetry entries of varying length, possibly annotated by her collaborator, naturalist Laurie Smith.
"The Autotroph" ironically explores the problems and
possibilities of ‘solutions’ to climate change and ecosystem
devastation. "The Autotroph" is a playful exploration using
technology to engineer solutions for the immense complexity
of dealing with ecological issues. Any action postulated
raises possibilities of good and harm to different aspects of
the ecology, and this is without even considering the
unknown unknowns (to quote Rumsfeld). The challenge of
this project is to tell the stories of these complexities, but
not to solve them.’
Image by Oron Catts and Ryan Kim.
Weldon visited the lake recently with authors Mark Tredinnick and Barry Lopez. As they stood together on the thrombolite boardwalk in the bright February sun of the Australian summer, Lopez repeated what he’d said in closing remarks at the Perth Writers Festival: “What we do to the environment depends critically on the language we apply to it. We are in need of stories that will help.”
She believes that the written word can help mend our broken relationship to the land, but says, “If words can heal, it will not be in the language we are already tiring of, the blunt messages about global warming.”
Like Weldon, Perdy Phillips recognizes the importance of going beyond the literal and purely representational messages that come out of scientific information, and notes that the artist has the ability to ask questions that do not have tidy answers. Often those questions can be asked by “making strange,” creating work that makes us look again.
Consider its application in raising public awareness of climate change. Was it strange that stopped delegates to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference to look again at Jens Galschiots’s Survival of the Fattest, his sculpture of a corpulent Justitia being carried by a frail African? Installed in the city’s harbor near the Little Mermaid, Galschiot’s piece was one of several on display during the conference as part of the Seven Meters consequence-based art initiative.
Is Marcus Vergette’s Time and Tide Bell project, a proposed permanent installation of twelve bells along the British coast, calibrated to ring differently as sea levels rise, likely to make us look again? The plan is to conduct outreach with communities that will host the bells, engender ownership of the symbolism and the issues they represent, including the connection that will be forged between the host sites.
Will the London-based Cape Farewell initiative, which brings together artists, scientists, and educators specifically to address climate change through expeditions to the high Arctic make the folks in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan look again? There, on exhibit at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts Museum through June 13, Americans have their first opportunity to experience the Cape Farewell artists’ work.
There is a need, I think, to better understand the role of artistic endeavor in protecting fragile ecosystems and landscapes, those at the water’s edge and inland. Just how does art make us look again at landscapes? How can we refine language to tell stories that will help rather than desensitize?
What is the difference between the art and literature that emerges from collaborative research with scientists and that which emerges solely from the imagination? (There are a lot of polar bear poems out there being written by people whose only contact with the species will occur at a municipal zoo.)
Should we forgo global topics and focus closely upon the regional, the loss of tuart trees in Western Australia, the degradation of streams that run orange from mine drainage in West Virginia? Will long-term collaborative projects that involve the public—at Lake Clifton or along the British coast—reach deeper into the psyche than a traveling exhibit?
Lake Clifton's living rocks, thrombolites, in high
Photo by Annamaria Weldon.
SymbioticA’s director, Oron Catts, emphasizes that Adaptation is not agenda-based; rather, it is an opportunity to engage with complex and dynamic ecologies. Time is accelerating in the undeveloped world around Lake Clifton. While thrombolite time oozes on, development that was held in abeyance for decades is rushing forward, with improved highway access, sewerage, and plans to build between the east shore of the lake and the estuary. For a lake fed only by groundwater, every well punched into the Earth, every leaking on-lot sewage system, each release of contaminants into the porous soil has the power to alter the ecological status quo.
Catts has become engaged by complex variables: an unwieldy set of competing stakeholders and natural circumstances that will affect which resilient species will adapt, a sense of urgency in those who want to save the critically-endangered thrombolites, and unknown outcomes of the open-ended research and dialogue about human responses and responsibilities that Adaptation supports. He and the other artists and collaborative scientists are working in a very large laboratory.
After a visit to that lab, Annamaria Weldon writes, “The country clung to my skin long after I’d rinsed my hands.”
I understand that residue, and where it can take you. Right now I am walking in the soft shoulder down Clifton Downs Road, east of the lake and south of Cape Bouvard Winery, and looking to the east, where development is slated. I see fences and unpaved sandy lanes, feathery trees that remind me of Arizona’s palo verdes. Not a single car. It is hauntingly beautiful terrain, and both wonderful and sad that I can visit by dragging Google Street View guy to transport me to this place I’ll never really see.
Because who wouldn’t want to look closer, use those little travel sets of watercolors, good cameras, digital recorders, moleskin journals, powerful binoculars, lingering until what you’ve seen and heard clings to your skin?
Luckily, there are artists and scientists traveling those roads who will do more than a drive-by.
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