Dancers From the Deep Sea Shine on the U.N. for Climate Week

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A Danish art collective uncovers the strangely beautiful siphonophore, which plays a key role in removing carbon from the atmosphere.

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A little-known but important agent of carbon removal from the atmosphere – the siphonophore, known as the twilight zone of the ocean – will be exposed in a video launch from a Danish art collective during United Nations Climate Week.


The siphonophore is a strangely beautiful creature. Like coral reefs, it is made up of individual parts, known as zooids, that perform special functions. “Some are digesters, some are swimmers, some are regenerators,” said Heidi Sosik, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “But they all happen together. It’s an interesting metaphor for humanity to think about.”

Next week, 21–24 September, in a light projection more than 500 feet high over the entire northern side of the United Nations Secretariat building, a siphonophore will perform a sinuous, pulsating dance between 8 and 11 p.m., coinciding with the International Meeting The video, “Vertical Migration,” aims to draw attention to the animals’ deep-sea carbon removal systems.

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“It is a gathering where world leaders meet and decide the future of the planet,” Rasmus Nielsen, one of the three founders of the politically-minded Danish art collective Superflex, which created the video, said in a Zoom interview. “It looks like they forgot to invite someone. It’s like a birthday party and you forget to invite uncle. Nielsen said that what has been overlooked are all other species whose fate depends on human activities.

The superflex chose to highlight the siphonophore as representative of the ocean’s mesopelagic zone, known as the twilight zone, which receives little or no sunlight. The inhabitants of the Twilight Zone are eaten by showy creatures such as tuna and swordfish. But at least as important as consumers are their own activity, which removes carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. “They come at night when they can hide from their predators and bite off carbon-rich organisms, and go down when the sun comes to hide in this deep twilight zone,” Sosik said.

It is estimated that between two and six billion tonnes of carbon Each year is sucked into the Twilight Zone, where it is stored indefinitely. This is several times the amount of carbon emitted by all the automobiles in the world. “The carbon pump we’re talking about is quite important,” said Peter de Menocal, director of the Institute of Oceanography. “If it disappeared, atmospheric carbon dioxide would increase by more than 50 percent. These organisms make Earth habitable.”

He continued: “It’s a very humble call to action by showing a humble creature that itself shows the importance of cooperation.”

Artists from Superflex encountered the siphonophore in the Coral Sea off the northeast coast of Australia in 2019, while leading a campaign sponsored by TBA21-Academy, a 10-year-old non-profit in Europe to explore the ocean through art Dedicated to the protection and deepening of awareness. . “One evening a marine biologist took us on a blackwater dive,” Nielsen said. “You go in at midnight and see this huge migration that happens every night as these creatures come to the surface. They don’t have an arm or two eyes, and they’re not afraid of you. They come right to you. You’ve never seen anything like this.”

When Superflex was approached by ART 2030 to create a work for Climate Week, a non-profit founded in Denmark enlisted artists from around the world to highlight the United Nations agenda for sustainable development, So he thought of the siphonophore. “We had a strong sense of companionship with these creatures, which is strange because they are not like golden retrievers,” Nielsen said. “We get stuck in a Disney movie with pandas and elephants. We decided, let’s invite this one as an unusual guest. It’s like all those science-fiction movies you’ve seen happening every night in the world .

Filming the siphonophore is a challenge. “Sometimes they come and stick to your glasses,” Nielsen said. “Sometimes they are five meters long, and when you come near, they break. They are like tissue. Nielsen and his colleague, Jacob Fanger, would spend an hour on a blackwater dive to a drop line to capture a few seconds of footage. (The third Superflex principal, Bjrnstjrn Kristiansen, was unable to travel that year.)

Based on his video, along with videos made by other divers, he created an animated simulation to create a 20-minute piece that would run in a continuous loop. “We made something that is a combination of reality and animation that gives you a sense of being closer to the creatures,” Nielsen said. “In the film you see a switch of perspective. In the beginning we’re looking at the siphonophore, and then it turns and you almost see the world from the animal’s perspective. A siphonophore does not have eyes. How can you see the world from the point of view of a siphonophore? by your imagination.”

Along with “Vertical Migration”, Superflex has created another task, the “Interspace Assembly”, to be installed In Central Park near the Naumburg Bandshell. It is a 46-foot enclosure demarcated by seven large slabs of pink marble, in which the words of the annex are engraved. “By entering the circle of stones, you agree to be inactive for at least five minutes,” Fanger said. “To understand other beings on the planet, you have to be calm and listen.” Superflex chose the pink marble as a nod to coralline algae that eat coral polyps and that color a reef. “Marble is going to last much longer than us,” Christian said.

Although the existence of siphonophores has long been known, research into their behavior is in its infancy. “One reason they are so difficult to study is that traditionally we learn about deep-sea creatures by netting,” Sosik said. “Something like a siphonophore does not survive being caught in a trap.” His project at Woods Hole has developed and activated a slow-moving robot called the Mesobot that moves stealthily in the depths of the ocean. Because the mesobot generates little disturbance, the siphonophore does not mistake it for danger and runs away. The research team also employs shadowgraph imagery, which analyzes the bending of light rays hitting gelatinous organisms. “We are able to put cameras and take 15 frames a second for hours on end,” she said. “They are amazingly beautiful when they are in their habitat.”

The huge amount of organic matter in the Twilight Zone has attracted interest for commercial fisheries, which it can be harvested for fish meal used in aquaculture, and for the manufacture of krill oil and fish oil. “Humans have a history of over-exploitation of protein sources in the ocean,” Sosik said. Since most of the Twilight Zone lies outside territorial waters, international cooperation is necessary to preserve it.

By shining a “Vertical Migration” on the Secretariat building, Superflex is bringing to light a vast and important event that remains unexplained. Markus Raymann, director of TBA21-Academy, which partnered with ART 2030 on the project, said, “Sometimes research that is based on peer review and ends up in an academic paper has very limited impact on a wide audience or reality. Is.” “This is the first time we are doing something on this scale. Charming, spectacular, huge monumental thing is an exception, there is an opportunity to communicate something prestigious. “

Although the technique used to produce the “Vertical Migration” is novel, it has traditionally been intended to satisfy the artist’s quest – illuminating a feature of life that is usually overlooked. Nielsen said, “The oldest trick in a book of art is that you tell people about something they don’t know about.” “We hope people stop for two minutes and start sympathizing with the siphonophore. It’s like a mesmerizing alien that you can enjoy from afar.”

And, if conservation-minded creators have their way, this joy will raise public awareness to a level that will inspire representatives in the building to take steps to stop climate change and preserve the earth.

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