Arts & Culture

Lecturer promotes art, science through ‘play’

Artist and journalist Margaret Wertheim takes interdisciplinary approach to studying coral reefs

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Institute For Figuring’s most renowned project engaged 8,000 participants in crocheting models of coral reefs.

Margaret Wertheim, science journalist turned artist, began a multi-day residence by delivering a lecture on the intersection of art, science, mathematics, community and environment Monday in the Martinos Auditorium of the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts.

As part of its semester-long exploration of the intersection between art, science and the humanities, the Department of Theater and Performance Studies will host Wertheim in residence until Thursday.

Wertheim, who studied physics and math at college and for many years worked as a science writer, said she realized about 10 years ago that “there needs to be a new performative way of engaging people with science and mathematics.” It has been statistically proven, she added, that only a small portion of American society reads science magazines or views science programs.

It is with this mindset that she and her twin sister cofounded the Institute For Figuring in Los Angeles in 2003. The aim of the organization is to engage people creatively with science and mathematics, with a focus on “material play,” she said. The organization promotes the concept of “play tank,” which, as Wertheim explained, is an extension of the concept of “think tank,” because “society needs also a play tank where people literally play with ideas.”

The IFF engages in creative large-focus participatory programs, among which the most renowned project is the “Crocheting Coral Reef,” an example of a community service project that resides simultaneously in art and science.

At the time of the project’s conception, coral reefs, which are particularly sensitive to global warming and its effects, like ocean acidification, were dying — one-third of the world’s coral reefs were already suffering. The project, then, was an artistic response to this phenomenon. The initiative has grown to include 8,000 participants from all over the world, who engage in crocheting precise models of coral reefs to raise awareness of the crisis and give participants an intimate knowledge of their biology.

Wertheim taught a brief lesson on the complex geometry inherent in the coral reef structure that enables it to maximize its surface area. The demonstration reinforced her assertion that crocheting coral reefs makes it possible to mimic the coral reef visually and procedurally.

A more recent project related to the coral reefs, Wertheim added, is a plastic coral reef project. In addition to ocean acidification, coral reefs have been suffering from an increase in plastic waste in the ocean. A new project of crocheted plastic coral reefs has emerged as a response to the threat.

In concluding the lecture, she introduced a metaphor to explain the projects’ implications for community activism. “Just as coral reefs individually can achieve nothing on their own, … we humans on our own can’t solve the problem of global warming,” she said. “Just as we can collectively build giant woolen crochet installations together, … collectively I believe we can solve the problems.”

After her lecture, Wertheim told The Herald that in the years she has dedicated her efforts to the convergence of the arts and sciences, there has been an increased interest in making such connections, and people have become “more receptive to this interdisciplinary approach.”

Erik Ehn, head of playwriting and TAPS department chair, who invited Wertheim to the residency and helped organize the events, told The Herald he had previously attended her talks and said he was intrigued by “these different kinds of artistic, mathematical and environmental clarity that she lined up altogether and made everything look bigger.”

“So what I would like to introduce to the community is that good as we all are we can realign ourselves to look further with more clarity,” he said.

Though at a very early stage, he added, he is involved in writing a proposal for an M.A. program between Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design to “put the two schools and different disciplinary practices together.”

In addition to Wertheim’s Monday lecture, there will be an array of hands-on workshops this week, such as making fractal origami, as well as an exhibition and a panel conversation. With these, Wertheim expressed hope that students will be “encouraged to think outside the box,” and be open to take “untraditional paths and explore.”

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  1. Cam Einsdorf says:

    Because college students are just the 20-year-old version of kindergarteners. If I may say so, this is stupid. I will say so on behalf of serious scientists and mathematicians, who are too tactful to say so themselves.

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