Hereafter is triptych that explores the themes of connection and the future in a world affected by climate change. The piece was inspired by digital models that track the movements of coral larvae in the Indian Ocean as ocean temperatures increase. The creation of Hereafter was a collaboration between Oliver Tooth, Noam Vogt-Vincent, and the Oxford Oceanography Group, as part of the Art, Biodiversity & Climate (ABC) Network within TORCH, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. Hereafter has been exhibited at Le 6b in Paris, France and The Museum of Natural History in Oxford, United Kingdom.
Materials : 200x50cm Hanji paper and ink.
By Noam Vogt-Vincent and Oliver Tooth
Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems found on Earth. Often described as ‘rainforests of the sea’, coral reefs are thought to be home to almost a third of all known marine species despite covering less than 0.1% of the ocean floor (1). Over 500 million people across the world (2) also depend on coral reefs for food (due to the fish they attract), tourism, and culture - representing a combined value of over $1 trillion to the global economy (3). Unfortunately, despite their incredible importance, coral reefs are undergoing a catastrophic decline. Whilst many reefs have already been under stress for decades from unsustainable development and fishing practices, climate change represents an existential threat due to the warming and acidification of the oceans.
Since corals are cemented to the ocean floor, we often think of individual reefs as isolated ecosystems, void from interaction with other reefs that might be tens, hundreds, or even thousands of kilometers away. However, baby corals, known as coral larvae, are able to float freely in the water column and can be swept over enormous distances by powerful ocean currents. The transport of coral larvae between reefs, therefore, represents a complex web of connectivity, where resilient reefs may provide the final lifeline for those undergoing severe destruction (e.g. from climate change). Observing the connectivity between coral reefs is challenging, however, because coral larvae are less than a millimeter in size and can travel up to thousands of kilometers. An alternative approach is to use computers to create millions of virtual coral larvae, simulating the pathways these virtual larvae take by combining our knowledge of ocean currents and coral larval biology (4). By observing coral larvae in a simulated ocean, we can prioritise conservation efforts to sites that are disproportionally important for regional reef resilience and also identify reefs that are particularly vulnerable (e.g. those that are poorly connected).
This artwork seeks to draw upon two central themes explored throughout our collaboration with Maya. Firstly, inspired by the pathways traced by virtual coral larvae in the Indian Ocean, the work illustrates the critical and often underappreciated role of connectivity in sustaining coral reefs. Secondly, it explores the ‘many possible futures’ that coral reefs may yet come to experience amidst the unprecedented threat of climate change. Although far from certain, the long-term future of coral reefs will fall somewhere on the continuum of interconnectivity and abundance visualised in this work. This piece, therefore, presents us all with the reality that preserving these beautiful ecosystems will not just require decisive and immediate climate action, it will also require targeted and pragmatic marine management to mitigate the damage of climate change. Through this action, the potential of a future that flourishes is still possible as represented by the tiny coral nodes that are few but present in the "future" panel of the triptych.
(1) Fisher et al. (2015) Species Richness on Coral Reefs and the Pursuit of Convergent Global Estimates. Curr. Biol.
(3) Costanza et al. (2014) Changes in the global value of ecosystem services. Glob. Env. Change.
(4) Siegel et al. (2003) Lagrangian descriptions of marine larval dispersion. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser.
Behind the Process
The art work began with a series of sketches and paper tests with different inks. Capturing movement was very important to me as I explored different ways of representing lines and connections. As my conversations with Ollie and Noam progressed, I received this resource that visualises ocean surface currents as one of its many parameters. I was immediately captured by the movements of the water which simultaneously reminded me of dancing and breathing, so as I progressed with the artwork I was very intentional with my movements and breath which resulted in a meditative creative process. It was almost like I was dancing with the lines- every line that I made in the triptych represents one complete inhale that I made in the course of its creation.