The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2014

All Issues
APR 2014 Issue
Critics Page

WE ARE ALL CORALS NOW: A Crafty Yarn About Global Warming

Stretching along the coast of Queensland, Australia, in a riotous profusion of color and form, the Great Barrier Reef is the first living thing that can be seen from outer space. Composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and occupying an area of 348,000 square kilometers, this vast aquatic fairyland offers us a garden of unearthly delights: Brain corals sculpted with fractalized grooves; pulsing pink pom pom corals; giant yellow plate corals; white staghorns tipped in iridescent purple; orange sea pens, their plumes wafting like psychedelic feathers; pilar corals covered in phosphorescent “fur,” (thousands of tentacles swaying en masse); and giant clams whose flesh oozes sensuously out of their shells in bright blue folds. We do not need to go to Pandora to witness ‘alien’ life; it is in abundance under the sea.

Margaret Wertheim in the Fohr Satellite Reef at the Museum Kunst der Westkuste (Germany). Photo © Institute For Figuring.

Coral reefs have been called the rainforests of the ocean. Although they occupy just less than 1 percent of the world’s ocean surface, reefs are estimated to provide a home for a quarter of all marine species. Yet reefs worldwide are under strain; in addition to the traditional stressors of pollution, overfishing, and too-zealous tourism, have now been added the twin scourges of global warming and ocean acidification. About a third of the carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere ends up in our oceans where it changes the basic chemistry of the sea—decreasing pH levels and thus making it harder for corals and other exoskeletal organisms (anything that forms shells) to build their bony structures. Since 1985, according to a 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Great Barrier Reef has lost more than half its coral cover. Massive bleaching events, once a rarity, are increasingly common. In 2005, in response to this environmental travesty, my sister Christine and I began to crochet a coral reef, a wooly testimony to the disappearing wonder of living reefs.

Even those who have never seen an actual reef immediately recognize the Crochet Coral Reef’s language of forms. Crenellated corals, curlicued kelps, frilled sponges, the animal undulations of nudibranchs, fluffy mouthed anemones, twisting cylinders of tube-worms, and trailing chains of siphonophores—all these and more have been mimicked in crochet through handicraft techniques that are at once inspired by empirical observation and fanciful play. Many of these structures—the swooping or  curly forms also seen in lettuces and some species of cacti—are variations of hyperbolic geometry, an alternative to the Euclidean geometry we learn about in school. Although mathematicians only discovered hyperbolic space in the 19th century, nature has been playing with its permutations for hundreds of millions of years. In the oceans, where maximal surface area is a survival advantage for filter-feeding organisms—many creatures have developed hyperbolic anatomical features. For humans, the best way to make models of this space is with crochet, a discovery made by Cornell mathematician Dr. Daina Taimina.

What started in our Los Angeles living room eight years ago has grown steadily into a worldwide happening that now encompasses more than 30 individual crochet reefs in cities and countries as far flung as New York, Chicago, Scottsdale (Arizona), St. Petersburg (Florida), London, Sydney, Melbourne, Ireland, Latvia, Germany, and Japan. More than 7,000 people have actively contributed to these giant wooly installations, which have been exhibited in both art galleries and science museums: the Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh), the Hayward Gallery (London), the Science Gallery (Dublin), and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (Washington D.C).

The latest addition to this threaded archipelago of Satellite Reefs is currently being constructed in Abu Dhabi, the first in the Middle Eastern and a region with its own unique coral systems. Middle East corals grow naturally in warmer temperatures than most other reefs and are now being closely studied for clues as to if and how corals might adapt to global warming.

Wool may not sound like an obvious medium to commute into a marine landscape, but as science historian Sophia Roosth has remarked in an elegant essay about the Crochet Coral Reef in the journal differences, “Analogies from the fiber arts run deep in the life sciences, as attested by the preponderance of terms such as strand, tissue, membrane, fiber, and filament in anatomy and net or web in systems biology and ecology.” In crocheting reefs we are not only creating mimetic sculptures, but also spinning a yarn whose purpose is to call attention, through incredibly labor-intensive craft, to the ongoing loss of natural phenomena that are also created through time-intensive collaborative effort.

What we know as a head of coral is actually a colony of thousands of polyps acting together. Individual polyps are tiny brainless jellyfish-like organisms floating in the sea; only en masse do they acquire their astonishing generative powers. Collectively, a colony of genetically identical polyps constructs a gastrovascular system through which members share nutrients and symbiotes, the microscopic zooxanthellae that help corals feed. Together the colony breathes, eats, and develops a sexual reproductive cycle. Thousands, or millions, of heads of coral collectively form a reef, which protects coastlines, feeds humans, and provides a home for millions of other species. If reefs were to disappear, as scientists are beginning to warn might happen, ecosystem collapse may result.

“Coral reefs have long proven themselves good to think with,” Roosth has remarked, in part because of their genius for collaboration. In recent years science studies scholars and feminist theorists have both used reefs as metaphors to think about relationships, embodiment, sensation, and ecological entanglement. Darwin, who wrote his first book about coral reefs and developed many aspects of his evolutionary theory while thinking about reefs, long ago paid homage to them: “Such formations surely rank high among the wonderful formations of this world,”he wrote. “We feel surprise when travellers tell us of the vast dimensions of the Pyramids and other great ruins, but how utterly insignificant are the greatest of these, when compared to these mountains of stone accumulated by the agency of various minute and tender animals!”

We humans too are minute and tender animals. Each of us as isolated “polyps” are almost helpless to stop the rising tide of carbon dioxide that threatens to destabilize planetary balance; yet following the inspiration of corals—builders of the Great Barrier Reef—who knows what we might achieve if we work together? At a time when the individual artistic ego is at an all-time premium—sales of work by dead and living artists now routinely fetch eight figure sums—the Crochet Coral Reef offers an alternative model of creation. No one artist could make these vast woolen landscapes whose aesthetic power drives from the their diverse and intricate ecologies.

In addition to the artifacts, here we are also constructing a tale about the power of distributed creation, a yarn about what might be achieved when humans act together. Entering into colonial relationships will necessarily mean a certain sublimation of the individual ego—not a step to be taken lightly—but, as so many scientists, philosophers, environmentalists, and pundits now tell us, unless we start thinking differently our future may be bleak indeed; probably not yours and mine personally, but certainly that of our grandchildren and theirs. Knotted in thread, bound together across continents by tendrils of shared, evolving energy, the Crochet Coral Reef offers us a metaphor—take it or leave it—we are all corals now.


Margaret Wertheim

MARGARET WERTHEIM and her sister Christine Wertheim are creators and ongoing global curators of the Crochet Coral Reef Project. Margaret is a science writer and author of books on the cultural history of physics. Christine is an experimental poet who is on the faculty of the department of Critical Studies at California Institute of the Arts. In 2003, the sisters founded the Institute For Figuring, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit dedicated to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science and mathematics. The I.F.F. is the host organization of the Crochet Coral Reef Project. Margaret?s TED talk about the project has been seen by almost a million people.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2014

All Issues