January 28–May 2022
Decentring the human has been the quintessential feature of the ontological turn in the humanities. From posthumanism to animal and critical plant studies, rhizomatic networks have replaced linear structures, and the fictitious objectivity of scientific phenomenology has given way to a proliferation of multiple, situated and embodied knowledges. The repositioning of the human has irrevocably impacted, for the better, the ways that we produce knowledge through art. Exhibitions such as Confluence at the Cameron Art Museum, in Wilmington, North Carolina, are a great example of how posthumanist philosophies can radically reshape both the form and the content of contemporary art.
Expertly curated by Gene Felice and Jennifer Parker of the Algae Society Collective, Confluence sheds light on a subject that is still overlooked, not only in art but more generally in popular culture: algae. From the exhibition Mushrooms: The Art, Design, and Future of Fungi, held at London’s Somerset House in 2020, to Merlin Sheldrake’s bestseller Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, arts and culture have firmly tuned into the invisible marvels of the micro-organic. And of course, it isn’t just fungi that have attracted our attention. This decade began with a global pandemic that has so far killed over six million people around the world and that, two years later, is still far from over. It is therefore not a surprise that our curiosity is reaching past the remit of what’s visible to the naked eye.
How to adequately represent the new registers of visibility proposed by the ontological turn is one of the most pressing challenges ahead—a reminder of how hard it really is to conceive ourselves and the planet from truly new perspectives. Confluence’s focus on scale—from the microscopy of phytoplankton to the often-unseen monumentality of kelp forests—invites us to rethink what we already know about ecology and ecosystems. For instance, despite the common claims in popular culture, trees are not “the lungs of the planet.” Ken Rinaldo’s Algae Sign reminds us that most of the oxygen we breathe (70 percent) is produced by phytoplankton that are invisible to the naked eye. How can we reconfigure our knowledge of the natural world beyond cultural clichés?
A spectacular installation of photographs taken through microscopes, cameras, and telescopes, curated by artist Jennifer Parker, introduces us to the dazzlingly diverse and awe-inspiring underwater world of algae. The need to visualize is inescapable, and yet Parker’s presentation reimagines the objectifying approaches of science to engage the viewer through the questions of scale, proximity, and distance.
Confluence features the work of twenty artists and artist collectives who, in different ways re-negotiate the economies of the gaze in the context of aesthetics, agency, technology, and science. The range of topics and media covered in the exhibition is impressive—another confirmation that the intersection of art and science can propose highly productive opportunities to re-envision concepts such as symbiosis, collaboration, and education. Madison Creech’s installation, Pond Scum, for instance, employs high-resolution microscopy images of algae found in the Cameron Art Museums’ detention pond to engage viewers with the process of photosynthesis in places not normally associated with it. The exhibition also features portraits of growing algae in a Bio Art lab, VR worldmaking experiences, biodegradable 3D printed sculptures, immersive video and sound works, as well as seaweed pressings to provide a multisensory experience. One of Confluence’s most pronounced strengths is its accessibility. It is a complex and rich exhibition that elegantly integrates multidisciplinary dimensions into a holistic vision for tomorrow.
Although the scope and content of the exhibition are firmly rooted in the current urgency of climate change and ecological fragility, as evidenced in the work of José Carlos Espinel & David Harris, Tiare Ribeaux, and Nadjejda Espinel-Velasco, Confluence bridges past and present through the iconic work of algae pioneers Anna Atkins, author of Photographs of British Algae (1843), the first-ever published photographic book, and natural history illustrator Margaret Gatty, whose British Seaweeds, published in 1863, aimed to encourage other women to take up the study of seaweed. Ultimately, Confluence is a call for action and engagement. The influence of these nineteenth-century pioneers wonderfully ties together the threads of this very timely and much-needed exhibition, reminding us of the important roles that their drive, passion, and desire to focus on the overlooked still play today.