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Ghostfish aboard the R/V Falkor

July 28, 2018

I’ve spent the last six days on the Pacific Ocean, in transit from San Diego, CA to Astoria, OR aboard the R/V Falkor, the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s big research vessel. Schmidt operates an Artist-at-Sea program, where they bring artists onto their research trips to work alongside the scientists that are using their facilities. These trips have included deepsea mapping projects, biological surveys of unexplored marine regions, and inquiries into the health and changing characteristics of oceans subject to a warming global climate regime.

This trip was the first where the artists outnumbered the scientists- six artists from across the US were aboard making work in response to the scientific work of researcher Susan Merle of Oregon State University, who had designed the course for the vessel- heading north along the Cascadian Subduction zone, where the Juan de Fuca plate is slowly moving east underneath the North American plate. This is the locked plate-zone that is predicted to produce a massive civilization-destroying earthquake at some point in the vague future, when the tension that has been building for the past three centuries releases explosively and transforms the lives of the tens of millions of people who now inhabit the western coast of North America. Our cruise was using multibeam sonar data, projected down into the water column from a turret on Falkor’s hull, to scan the margin for the telltale bubble streams emanating from methane hydrates. These are formations found in deep cold water where methane is locked up in ice, and Merle’s investigations are a part of an effort to generate a baseline of data about the current status of the hydrates found in this region, so that the effects of anthropogenic climate change can be more effectively measured. Unfortunately and ironically this information, which is in the public domain, is also being used by corporations like Exxon to identify sources of hydrate which they plan to eventually start mining as an alternative to fracked natural gas.

I was on the ship to paint a mural, which featured a strange fish called the ghostfish– currently the deepest-living fish to have ever been identified. Scientists aboard the Falkor located it at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the Pacific Ocean, when it swam in front of a camera attached to a lander they had set out to conduct surveys of the seafloor. Nicknamed “Snoopy” by the crew for its comical appearance and apparent curiosity about the lander, the ghostfish is emblematic of the degree to which the deep ocean remains mysterious and unknown. I painted the mural in the aft passageway, just inside the entrance to the aft deck, where the imposing hulk of the deepsea ROV Subastian sat wrapped in rubberized tarps. I painted the fish in an imagined spotlight, and surrounded them with manganese nodules, which are another source of possible invasion of the deep by commercial interests.  Manganese nodules and other rare metal concentrations are being pursued in the deep ocean around the world by the same mining interests that have destroyed the landscapes of Papua New Guinea, British Columbia, and anywhere else that the metals that power our society are found. I like to imagine the ghostfish in this image protecting the manganese nodules.

This project illustrated a phenomenon that I return to often in my work and my thinking about my work- that the light of science can bring a greater understanding of the world to a broad audience, but when those investigations take place under capitalism they are distorted, and help to bring an extractive and annihilatory aesthetic into the wild and remote places where they take place. Science pretends to operate without ideology- and as such becomes captive to people with very clear ideologies based on maximizing shareholder value. Science needs to figure out what it believes and take a stand- because if it continues to provide rapacious capitalist interests with the information they need to do their brutal work, then it is complicit in the ongoing collapse and disintegration of the biosphere, no matter what the mission statement says.





Shoutout to the excellent and amazing artists, students and scientists who I shared this trip with- and to the wonderfully warm and hospitable crew of the Falkor who welcomed us into their space and worked alongside us during the week in transit.

Anti-capitalismEcology & AnimalsEnvironment & ClimateGlobal Solidarity

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