‘Optimistic and tragic’: A glimpse of coral restoration

Woman standing in front of a projected image of an ocean scene.
Hope Ginsburg's latest art installation highlights human ingenuity, and folly, in the face of climate change. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

It was Hope Ginsburg’s longtime work with sea sponges — an interest she’s held since she was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — that ultimately led to her latest pursuit.

“Swirling,” a four-channel video installation with sound, captures the coral restoration process and brings it before viewers to consider this moment on the planet. Vignettes in the piece highlight human ingenuity, and folly, in the face of catastrophic climate change.

“The piece is named after the Swirling Reef of Death, which is one of the coral nurseries and outplant sites in Saint Croix where we shot,” said Ginsburg, the 2018-2019 VCU Arts Research Institute fellow. “It just shows the process in all of its surrealness.”

The 13-minute piece — created by Ginsburg and longtime collaborators Matt Flowers and Joshua Quarles — will be previewed by the Arts Research Institute at 5 p.m. Wednesday, March 27, and will run through July 30. It comprises four channels. Three large screens surrounding viewers will display the three main channels. The title “Swirling” refers to the swirl of factors that will determine the outcome of this coral restoration narrative, Ginsburg said. Also, viewers will have to physically swirl to take in the narrative that's unfolding around them in vignettes across three screens.

A smaller fourth screen will show excerpts from the three main screens. “That channel holds healthy outplanted coral with fish that have come back,” Ginsburg said. “But we've kept it apart because it was really only one possible end to the story.”

Ginsburg went to Saint Croix — which became the focal point of “Swirling” — at the proposal of Flowers, who in 2017 lived and worked on the island restoring underwater coral with The Nature Conservancy.

“When Matt showed me these sort of spindly white plastic trees at the bottom of the ocean with coral fragments dangling from them like ornaments, the whole image was so confoundingly optimistic and tragic that I felt like it would be a really interesting project to pursue,” Ginsburg said. “So Josh and I went down there so that I could dive and see the reefs.”

The coral fragments, which Ginsburg said The Nature Conservancy calls “fragments of opportunity,” are viable coral fragments that have already broken off of the reef — or fragments that can be broken off from healthy coral. They are hung from plastic trees that are anchored to the bottom of the ocean. There, Ginsburg said, they are tended to by divers who keep the coral healthy until it's big enough to be outplanted to the reef.

“That takes about six to nine months,” Ginsburg said. “Then they snip the fragments off of the trees and move them to the reef where they are glued down by hand with globs of two-part epoxy.”

A diver looks for coral fragments. (Courtesy Hope Ginsburg)
Click to view slideshow. A diver looks for coral fragments. (Courtesy Hope Ginsburg)

“Swirling” was produced with a film/video studio residency at Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University this past fall. Ginsburg, an associate professor in the VCU School of the Arts, was able to take a leave from teaching last semester to attend the residency.

Not teaching classes gave Ginsburg the time to finish “Swirling” as well as work on a new concept, Meditation Ocean. That concept, Ginsburg said, is a product of both “Swirling” and her interest in land diving — breathing on land in scuba gear.

Ginsburg has completed land dives from the beaches of Florida to the deserts of Qatar. She began situating land dives in sites that can be interpreted environmentally, she said. For instance, she and collaborators went to the coast of Canada and four divers — including Ginsburg — sat in meditation at the edge of the Bay of Fundy as the world's highest tide flowed in and “rose on our bodies until we were gone,” Ginsburg said.

“The land dive team and the ‘Swirling’ project have really led to this Meditation Ocean idea,” Ginsburg said. “From [the] land dive team comes the notion of meditation and scuba gear and environment. And from ‘Swirling’ comes this immersive video environment. The [Meditation Ocean] idea is to combine ocean ecology and mindfulness meditation instruction inside a video projection so that people can learn meditation as if they're scuba divers breathing on the bottom of the ocean.”

Meditation Ocean invites viewers into the ocean soundscape through a meditative practice, said Sarah B. Cunningham, Ph.D., director of the Arts Research Institute and executive director for research at the School of the Arts.

“In that sense, the occasional meditation of the art visitor becomes a physically manifested intention toward sustained reflection,” she said. “Is this an antidote of sorts — to share fragility between humanity and other species? These are the kinds of questions this new work allows us to explore together.”

Ginsburg plans to prototype the initial iterations of Meditation Ocean in the new Arts Research Institute video projection space.

In addition, Ginsburg has not shut the door on her sponge work just yet. Although SpongeHQ — the ongoing, participatory artwork project that Ginsburg began in 2006, a year before she came to VCU — closed in 2016, the ideas live on, she said.