[ISEA2016] Artists Talk: Cynthia Beth Rubin & Susanne Menden-Deuer — Antarctica Underwater: Art & Science

Artists Statement


We present an overview of the interactions of Oceanographers with an artist who wandered into their midst five years ago, focusing on the current project from Antarctica. Concerns of climate change drive this work for both artist and scientist. How do we create intuitive empathy for the largely unseen and unnoticed life that makes possible our life on this planet?

Antarctica: Scientists on a Mission
The video Antarctica Underwater is largely constructed from incidental footage collected in icy cold Antarctic waters, hundreds of meters below the surface, as a seal bumped into an underwater camera and a serene jellyfish floated by, as did a ctenophore. The scientists knew that what they filmed was interesting, but the footage was short, flat, and dull in raw form. The five to ten second vignettes were like phrases waiting to be put into a coherent sentence, not yet carrying full weight.

Relative Realism
Woven into the video are the barely visible shrimp-like krill, that serve as food for seals, penguins and whales, and the microscopic plankton that produces half of the oxygen in our environment, and thus essential to human survival on Earth. We quickly agreed it is impossible to convey the sense of the variety of microscopic and tiny life in the ocean next to large animals while maintaining relative scale, and thus creating the sensations of teaming interdependent life won out over scientific realism.

Technical Challenges
Working with video collected for other purposes meant green-screening an ice-fish, sharply contrasting light and dark, and slowing down a diving seal. Above all else, it also meant using a software spotlight to digitally relight the raw footage, to both eliminate the straight edges of the video rectangle, and to make visible the seal, jellyfish, and krill that happened to swim out of the range of the physical real spotlight. It was a long adventure to become familiar with this harsh environment, and the work continues. In the next phase, this will be a video in color. It may lead to an Augmented Reality work, and/or still images. The impetus of working for ISEA 2016 Open Sky forced limitations that brought out a new familiarity with the raw source material. It became clay to be molded into sensations of the underwater life that must be preserved for the survival of life.

See related projects: cbrubin.net/hudson-waters.html cbrubin.net/plankton-portraits.html

  • Susanne Menden-Deuer, Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island, USA
  • Cynthia Beth Rubin, USA, Independent artist and artist in residence, Menden-Deuer lab

Raw footage was collected by Mary Kane, Susanne Menden- Deuer, and members of the Roman lab at URI, using a camera system developed by Chris Roman, under a grant from the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs, Award #1142107. Earth Footage: NOAA Science On a Sphere. Thanks also to Sean Anderson, François Morrison and Amanda Montalbano, and to the Nature Lab at the Rhode Island School of Design, which provided microscopic equipment through the EPSCoR grant EPS-1004057.