Making Speedbumps 4 Eels
Like a synchronized school of fish, a group of Glass students in RISD’s Hot Shop circle around the casting furnace to check on a collection of newly formed bell-shaped jars. Ever so careful not to bump into each other – or the molten hot tools strewn about – they inspect pieces being made for Speedbumps 4 Eels and Other Intelligent Creatures. “We’re making aquatic habitats that will attract marine animals indigenous to local rivers,” explains Cydney Ferguson-Brey MFA 14 GL. “The glass biospheres will float close to the surface of the water so people can see wildlife in their natural habitats.”
The project is the latest in a series of artistic experiments led by Natalie Jeremijenko, an Australian-born professor of art and education who currently teaches at New York University (NYU) and is serving as a visiting artist in Glass this semester. The engineer and biophysicist expresses her environmental activism through site-specific installations that facilitate whimsical, slightly off-kilter interactions between humans and “non-humans.”
For instance, a couple years ago Jeremijenko installed a piece off the bank of Manhattan’s East River called Mussel Choir, a “glee club” of bivalves hooked up to sensors and audio sensors that “sang” about the quality of water as they filtered it. She has also created seaweed bars containing chemical agents that rid organisms of heavy metals. The idea is that people can experience joy in feeding the fish knowing that they’re also ridding their scaly bodies of poisonous mercury. And if they grow hungry themselves, they can taste the leafy bars, too. “A lot of my work attempts to motivate people to challenge our relationship to natural systems,” she notes.
In the Glass studios, both undergraduate and graduate students are creating two types of lovely devices that will be incorporated into Speedbumps 4 Eels and another related project Jeremijenko envisions. One design is the bulbous jars, which will be partially submerged so that the water they capture will be heated up through solar energy – and attract aquatic creatures seeking warmth and the algae that will grow inside the glass space. Another design is rectangular, but also acts as an aquatic looking glass.
“Instead of taking dead – or at best, incarcerated – organisms out of their environment and putting them on display in a museum or under a transparent encasement, these installations allow viewers to see the behavioral patterns of eels in the wild,” Jeremijenko explained to a small group of students who came to a presentation she made at RISD at the end of October. “The goal is to reveal what happens just underneath the water’s surface. It’s a fascinating thing to see.”
Professor Rachel Berwick 84 GL, head of the Glass department, first became acquainted with Jeremijenko’s socially-charged work in the early 1990s when they were both teaching at Yale. “I'm really excited that students got the chance to see the way Natalie works,” notes Berwick. “She’s a really ambitious artist who knows how to effectively execute an idea – even when there are a million infinitesimal decisions that have to be made before a vision becomes reality. Plus, she’s an incredibly open and generous person.”
In the spring, Jeremijenko will return to RISD to spark more eco-friendly installations and see how they fare in the waters of downtown Providence. She’s excited to continue her work with the diverse students who navigate RISD’s ever-shifting channels of exploration.
“This place is full of the wildest hutzpah and most valuable experimentation I’ve ever seen,” Jeremijenko notes. “I've had more rewarding technical conversations with the RISD artists than with most of my science and engineering students. They’re figuring out wondrous and meaningful things to do with these incredible materials, and their knowledge is both deeply technical and deeply engaged with cultural questions.”
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