Bioluminescence Meets Art in Paris


Bioluminescence – living light – is nature’s own visually stunning form of art.  In the deep sea, where light is almost absent, nearly 90 percent of life forms are luminescent.  They produce striking displays that serve to distract predators, attract mates, and attract and illuminate prey.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego marine biologist Michael Latz teamed up with internationally exhibiting artist Erika Blumenfeld to represent bioluminescence at the CARBON 12 art exhibition in Paris, France.  CARBON 12 opened on May 3, 2012, and is scheduled to last until September 16, 2012.

The exhibition is sponsored by the British foundation Cape Farewell, through funding by the British Arts Council, and features the collaborations of five teams of artists and scientists.  Each was charged with the task of representing the complex and abstract concepts of scientists in biodiversity, oceanography, atmospherics, and marine energy technology so as to create artistic narratives that are “human scale, emotional, direct and engaging. “

Blumenfeld’s artwork, in collaboration with Latz’s science, yielded a series of photographs and video installations, captured by a sensitive digital camera system and scientific laboratory equipment.

Blumenfeld told CARBON 12 that her work is inspired by natural phenomena, and she often finds herself working in dialogue with scientists.  Latz said this was the first time he had participated in an art exhibition and attended the grand opening.  Yet, the experience as a whole was not all that unfamiliar.

“I learned that collaborating with an artist isn’t too different from working with a scientist – you brainstorm to develop the project, do the work together, and create products that become publicly available,” said Latz.

One of the subjects for the exhibit was a bioluminescence packet, similar to the ones that Latz’s lab supplies to Birch Aquarium at Scripps for use in their outreach and education programs.  Each packet contains more than 5,000 organisms that produce a flash in response to mechanical agitation.  For these, it was the artist’s own touch that produced the bioluminescence. Latz and Blumenfeld also installed, as a second subject, an apparatus from a previous scientific study in which bioluminescence is stimulated as the water is agitated by flow.

“Each line you see in the image represents the bioluminescence produced by one organism.  You don’t see the organism itself, you see its pattern as it is moving inside of the container,” said Latz.   “The result is wonderfully abstract, but it directly represents the underlying science, and intends to lead the viewer to wonder ‘What is this?’”

The exhibition also sought to address climate change, said Latz.  Bioluminescence is an indicator of the health of the oceans, as dinoflagellates are sensitive to the effects of global warming.  Measuring bioluminescence is a simple way of measuring changes in the biology of the ocean – if there are changes in physiology of the organisms, there will be changes all the way up the food web.

“For me, art becomes a part of the continuum of communicating our knowledge of science,” said Latz. “The artist and the scientist alike seek to make the invisible visible.” 


- Deborah L. Jude

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