Plankton Portraiture

Plankton Portraiture

Foundation Studies CriticCynthia 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.

Now, 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 teachesDigital Nature during Wintersession, she makes great use of the RISD Nature Lab and through its connections, metSusanne Menden-Deuer, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island, andElizabeth 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.

Harvey 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.

First published in the September 2012 issue of the science journalPLOS 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.

Art/Science Dialogue

Interestingly, 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 predatoryFavella be emphasized?” she asked. Yes, the scientist explained, because they reveal the inner structure of the cell.

In 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.

For 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 ourselves.”

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.

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