Artist and faculty member Cynthia Rubin explores the world of plankton through her digital media work.
Studies Critic Cynthia Rubin has
always been fascinated by the elegant complexities found in nature. But after
years of exploring issues of cultural heritage, in 2008 the digital media
artist returned to nature as a source of inspiration, documenting leafy beauty
hanging from forest rafters, sea life unseen by the naked eye and other wonders
of the natural world.
one of Rubin’s more recent projects has traveled beyond the art world to set
off a flurry of excitement in the science community. An instructor who teaches Digital Nature during Wintersession, she
makes great use of the RISD Nature Lab and
through its connections, met Susanne Menden-Deuer,
an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island, and Elizabeth Harvey, who was working
on her doctorate at URI. The marine scientists had recorded the presumably perfect
illustration to accompany their groundbreaking research into the unexpected
ability of plankton to flee their predators.
had managed to “capture” an image of microscopic photoplankton where it appeared
as if larger plankton were preying upon smaller ones. But since the drama of
the chase was lost in a blur of washed-out grey tones, Menden-Deuer asked Rubin
to enhance the images for publication.
published in the September 2012 issue of the science journal PLOS ONE, the imagery illustrates the
ability of plankton to flee to ensure survival. Soon after, the enhanced images
were splashed on the URI and National Science Foundation home pages. And Rubin created a blog
– aptly named Plankton Portraiture – to share the work born
from her ongoing collaboration with Menden-Deuer.
as Rubin was adjusting the tone and hues in the imagery, the artist and
scientist discovered that they had much to discuss. For example, were the halos
around the plankton important? Were they real? Rubin, the artist, had
emphasized them, whereas Menden-Deuer, the scientist, hadn’t even noticed these
by-products of microscope-capturing techniques. “Should the textures within the
predatory Favella be emphasized?” she asked.
Yes, the scientist explained, because they reveal the inner structure of the
addition to image enhancement, Rubin has altered videos of swimming plankton to
bring their movement patterns to light – a valuable piece of information
researchers use to study climate change. And “there’s more yet to be seen,” she
notes. Using cultures of an assortment of plankton
provided by the Menden-Deuer lab, Rubin has gone on to capture her own images
using the Nature Lab’s high-end microscopes and computers. Interweaving these images with fragments of
textures and colors extracted from other works, she’s able to create dramatic
scenes that are more akin to the vibrant life found in the ocean than the antiseptic
views found under the microscope.
Rubin, her work has a larger – some might argue spiritual – connection to a
world where tiny organisms play a vital role. “Plankton are the base of
everything,” she says. “Without plankton, we’d all be gone.” By sharing images
like these, she hopes “the public will relate to their surroundings at a
visceral level – and recognize that we live in a universe larger than
Starting at the end of
January 2013, the Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life in New York City will
exhibit Rubin’s work for about a month.
STEM to STEAM
RISD’s Edna Lawrence Nature Lab
• Plankton Portraiture
, partnerships + collaborations