"What is the Shape of Water" with CIRCA-IMET Artist-in-Residence

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"What is the Shape of Water" with CIRCA-IMET Artist-in-Residence

Jun 26, 2019

The CIRCA-IMET Artist-in-Residence program is a collaboration between the Center for Innovation, Research, and Creativity in the Arts (CIRCA) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET). The goal of this collaboration is to cultivate relationships between artists and scientists, as their independent work doesn’t typically coincide. Lisa Moren, the current Artist-in-Residence at IMET, serves as an excellent example that these disciplines can be linked. The energy Lisa brings to her work is inspiring.

“Artists love working in facts, but don’t always have a way to access them,” Lisa explained. She believes this collaboration is an effective way for artists to acquire facts while giving scientists a medium of communication.

Lisa was an emerging artist in the 1990s, when media art was a novel means of self-expression. She felt that she could take this in her own direction by making connections between computers and art. Her early questions in this project focused on memories and fragments—how people think, how computers process information, and how they might be connected. Over time her focus shifted to reconnecting with nature and using natural phenomena as an example for how society might work. To explain this idea, she used a video of murmurations in starlings.  

“This will change your life,” she said. She pointed out the organic, flowing, unconfined motion that the birds make and how both synchronous and chaotic movements are necessary from each individual bird to create such patterns. All in all, “you need diversity.” The patterns of the starlings mimic pre-renaissance architecture, the shapes on the back of turtles or cheetahs, and the shape of dinoflagellates (single-celled marine plankton). These examples advanced her big-picture purpose: investigating emerging strategies of taking these reoccurring patterns in nature and applying them to how humans might organize themselves. This could mean non-profits, science fiction, or even governance and communities. To do this, Lisa is diverging from the traditional idea that everything needs to be symmetrical and linear to be correct.

To focus these ideas, Lisa has been working on three projects during her time at IMET. The first was with Dr. Tsvetan Bachvaroff, a research assistant professor at IMET. The two grew bioluminescent dinoflagellates that glow in the dark when agitated. The dinoflagellates were placed on top of speakers that played music, and the soundwaves made shapes as the dinoflagellates reacted to the disturbance.

“The question is, and the name of the piece is, ‘What is the shape of water?’ and the idea is that the dinoflagellates show us or tell us,” she explained.

The two put these glowing dinoflagellates on display at IMET’s open house in May, and Lisa says this is her favorite IMET memory so far. She described how amazing it was to watch people's reactions when they were reluctantly taken into the dark room (the only way to view the bioluminescence) and how they slowly became more comfortable.

“Having the audience is where the real learning comes in. You can think your art is going one way, but you need to see how people react, and then that becomes part of the work.”

The second project is still brewing in her mind, but involves utilizing virtual reality (VR). It’s the idea of combining these emerging strategies and nature with how people interact in public spaces. She explained how removing a bridge, building or monument can have extreme effects on who feels alienated or welcome in a space. She has done storyboarding for this project around the abandoned plinths in Baltimore where the confederate monuments used to stand. The use of this space is currently a big conversation in the art world, and Lisa wants to use it as the basis for her VR piece. She also wants to incorporate nature, and her time at IMET will be spent looking at nature, specifically water, to tie into this project.

“We’ll see where it goes,” she said elusively.

 The last project is a communications piece also with Dr. Bachvaroff. Lisa, along with a computer programmer at UMBC, hope to create an app with augmented reality that communicates Dr. Bachvaroff’s data to a broad audience. Take oxygen levels in the Baltimore Harbor, for example, which Lisa imagines could be identified as a bubble that gets larger or smaller depending on the O2 levels at that time. Her enthusiasm heightens when she talks about this app, and she explains that it’s really exciting for her because it feels like she can use her art to serve another cause, without feeling like she’s diminishing it.

“It’s super compelling for me,” she explained, “not to communicate the science, not even about science as much as about how can humans re-center their relationship to nature or be less centered in human-ness? How can we see the world in a non-human point of view? What do we share [with nature] that we don’t think about? Biologists do that every day.” She believes biologists have the experience and knowledge, but don’t always have the language to convey it.

“That’s why you need artists!” she exclaimed. “In some ways, I think [art] serves the science because it’s sort of telling [scientists] what they’re already doing.”

Lisa’s face lit up when asked about her experience working with scientists. She described how interesting it’s been to be in our world and how she always tries to make connections back to her world, realizing the relationship between tools and chemicals in both art and science. She says it’s been a great feeling to be around the hyper excitement in a chaotic space with passionate people, and it reminds her a lot of artists.

“These are my people,” she said.

If you would like to check out Lisa’s “What is the shape of water?” video, follow the link below. You can also check out more of her work on her website at www.lisamoren.com.

By Tori Agnew. Tori just finished her first year as a Master's student in the MEES program working with Dr. Colleen Burge in her Aquatic Animal Health Lab. Tori's thesis works focuses on the marine slime mold, Labyrinthula zosterae, that causes wasting disease in eelgrass, Zostera marina, and how oysters might be used as a mitigation strategy to filter this pathogen out of the water.