From the Gallery Floor to the Sea Floor: A Conversation with Marie Griesmar

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Marie Griesmar has a background in Fine Arts, which she has merged with science in unusual ways (and places). From coral reef sculptures under the sea, to dredging up the mysteries beneath the Seine, her work is focused on bringing the mysteries of the deep to people on land.

Having studied in Geneva, Munich, and Zurich — where she completed her master’s at ZHDK — Griesmar turned to the ocean as a space for her work, and also began to see her work as a site for contemplation of a world most of us never visit.

After graduating from ZHDK, Griesmar went to Saudi Arabia through the Zurich-based program Artists in Labs. There, she spent three months with scientists studying reef ecosystems. We talked to her during her Pier 17 Science Studio residency at swissnex San Francisco.


The Clay Reef

  • When did you start thinking of going beneath the sea to create work?

I’ve been a SCUBA diver since I was eight years old — at first with my father, starting in the swimming pool, then the lake every weekend. That’s really where I started my interest in reefs. I read a lot about ecosystems and water ecologies because of that, but I didn’t know what I could do with sculptures, especially to help corals develop habitats.

When I was 21, I went to Seychelles to get my diving masters, and met some scientists who were working there. They showed me how to create a coral nursery. Basically, little strings that had a bit of coral, and they’d see how it developed in the ocean. I was fascinated! I wanted to include that in my art.

After earning my master’s, I finally returned to that idea. Artist in Labs sent me to Saudi Arabia, where I could spend time with scientists in a lab and go on field trips — often intense ones. I started drawing corals under water, which I’d never done before.

  • What did you do in the lab?

I learned a lot, and produced prototypes for these coral sculptures out of clay. When clay burns it has a nice adherence for corals to develop on, and it’s natural, which, if you put something in the water, it has to be eco-friendly.

I created a prototype two years ago for the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia. The sculptures were inspired by shapes I saw in the lab or in the sea itself. These were organic shapes, which I might interpret in abstract ways, or combine different pieces together. The idea was that I could show the piece in a gallery as an art piece, but also put it into the water to create a reef. It’s a different way of raising awareness about coral reefs and coral bleaching.

But it didn’t work out so well. It ended up in a protected area where a reef could grow, but then waves came, bringing sand that covered up the sculptures. They were just too small and not heavy enough. To have corals grow, you need real stability.

  • It sounds like a laboratory experiment.

Yes! It was a very good experiment. Failure is the best. You can only make progress after that. So I wasn’t frustrated anymore — I was frustrated then, in the moment, but I love failure! All my work is a process.

I steal scientific methodologies all the time, but it’s to do something else. I have very meticulous methodologies. I’ll do a lot of research — into art, sure, but also to find insights from science, anthropology, philosophy. Then I come up with some kind of solution — a hypothesis. Then I do field work to test them.

So I’m in San Francisco to find ways to collaborate with other scientists, to create a new version of this work. And also because, as we all know, Switzerland has no ocean.

  • So you’ve created a new model?

Yes. This time they’re bigger, and they have to be installed on concrete. They’re waiting in my garage in Switzerland! Eight of them, but two exploded in the kiln. So six of them are just waiting to be shown. I’d like to place them somewhere where corals can grow.

  • What were the challenges of collaborating with a scientist, as an artist?

There’s a lot of jargon. What you call a coral or a sponge, scientists have a different word. So they gave me lots of books, and they had to make it a lot simpler for me! I learned to speak another way, to be more brief, more concrete about expectations and failure and results.

They would bring such a different perspective. For example, they told me that if I made sculptures hollow, so larvae and fish could live in it. OK, good idea! It goes both ways. I made this tool, a booklet for drawing under water. They thought it was great, they wanted me to give them one. So it was a great exchange of ideas.

The Color of Water

 Exhibition view: Zurich, Color Catchers, photo by Jeremy Ayer.

Exhibition view: Zurich, Color Catchers, photo by Jeremy Ayer.

  • Tell us about capturing color under the sea.

If you’re a diver — or just open your eyes underwater — you’ll see there are a lot of beautiful colors. It’s the result of a lot things: light in the area, topography, algaes, it all influences the light. That’s physics.

There is something poetic about asking if you can take that water back and show those colors to people. I did this kind of stupid thing, where I’d put a canvas underwater and then retrieve it, like “here’s the color.” Of course it doesn’t work, it’s just water! But I really liked the idea of trying this experiment.

Through my research I discovered a scientist, FA Forel, who wanted to classify the color of lakes back in 1892. There was no concrete result, but the combination of failure, doubt, and poetry inspired me to created an instrument to harvest color from water. It doesn’t work, but I thought it was so poetic — like Goethe’s color wheel but for water.

The combination of failure, doubt, and poetry inspired me

I thought to myself “alright, I’ll go get those colors for you.” So I created these instruments — I call them Color Catchers — a textile hung between two wooden poles. I’d add recycled bottles for buoyancy, so the canvas could float upright, with stones from the lake at its feet.

It was a whole system, with drawings and figures, and I put together a manual for how to go and catch colors underwater yourself. Each chapter is something about the color of water and why, the place, the installation and removal of the Color Catchers.

  • So this is … very surreal. It’s acting on a scientific method that doesn’t work?

It kind of does work! What happens when the Color Catchers are underwater is actually quite interesting. I’m capturing algae, sediments, shells — everything down there becomes encrusted into the canvas, and these are the things that influence the color of water. It’s not technically the color, of course, but it means I can capture the environment of the colors.

  • It reminds me of pataphysics, or the surrealists. Creating a kind of impossible science experiment and seeing what happens next.

I see it as nature completing the work for me in a haphazard way. The question is, “can we catch colors underwater?” My answer is yes.

In another work, I wanted to examine the nuance of water, so I went diving, 40 meters below, and took a sample of water. Then I’d come back to the surface and show the colors I saw, down there, it on this spectrum of what I’d seen — this is dark blue, this is light blue, and so on — but of course there wasn’t any color. When you take it back to the surface, it’s just water. Maybe traces of algae in the water, if you get very close. It tells a story, but doesn’t prove anything.

I like to deceive people a bit. Underwater you see things that aren’t there. I like to make a tangible link — can you see it? Can you not see it? Is it blurry or sharp? Even when I put something underwater, people ask, “Can I see it?” and I say yes, just go under the ocean!

  • How do you think about environmental advocacy in your work?

My work is about ecology. More than an ecological activist, I’m an ecological aestheticist. I try to show people that what’s going on under the surface is beautiful, and that we should take care of it.

Science Communication

  • Do you think of yourself as a science communicator?

Researchers have all these publications, have done all this field work, know so much about what we need to change — but the public lacks an interest for it. I might say something not so nice, but these scientific papers, they’re very important, but they’re being written for a scientific audience. I can say, because I have read so many of them, that they’re quite boring.

I think there’s another way to get people interested. Here, the Exploratorium does such a great job. They don’t make science silly or simple, but they provide a basic example that can help you grasp a concept. And if it’s interesting to someone, they can look at the concept closer. But you have to grab people from somewhere.

For instance, the project I am running right now is a sculpture created for the sake of coral generation. That gives the public another access point for understanding what’s under water.

The work sparks curiosity and they ask me about saving the coral, about solutions. This is what I love. Telling them there are solutions.

There are others doing things like what I’m doing, for example, the subaquatic museum in Cancún, Mexico, or off the Spanish island of Lanzarote. There are these artists doing work about this. But the art world is really kind of resistant to these kinds of things. It’s not really “art,” not quite in the hype. I’m never in the hype, but I don’t care.

  • The sea is your hype.

The sea is my hype! But now people are becoming more interested in projects that connect more with nature. So maybe it’s a hype thing, like organic food. Maybe people will continue this kind of education, this awareness that we have to change. So I hope if people see the work in a gallery, even if they have no idea about art, they think “ah, cool, this is about science!”


Story by Eryk Salvaggio

Once called "the Harry Potter of the Digital Vanguard," Eryk studied new media art and journalism at the University of Maine and Global Media at the London School of Economics.