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Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
January 2017

ARTSail launches its inaugural project

TArtFeature_1he Impossible Dream set sail from Miami on Friday, December 16, heading for the reefs off the Florida Keys. The mission: to document the health of this precious part of our unique ecosystem through photos, film, and narrative.

This was the very first phase of a partnership between ArtCenter/South Florida and the Frost Museum of Science, which won a $40,000 Knight Arts Challenge Grant, called ARTSail. Artists are taking part in a “nomadic, floating art project” with four- to six-week research residencies living and working aboard boats while they explore some of South Florida’s water systems -- including the ocean and bays, the Intracoastal, and the Everglades.

They’ll also work alongside “scientists and/or science students involved with the Patricia and Philip Frost Museum of Science” engaged in the study of sea level rise, coral bleaching, hydroponic/aquaponic farming, and phosphorus pollution in the Everglades. The artists will create works designed to increase awareness and engage the public in seeking solutions to these environmental challenges.

Mark Lee Koven is the inaugural artist, a former Miamian who now teaches at Utah State University and has long created participatory artworks that combine science and technology. ARTSail will be directed by independent curator Ombretta Agró Andruff.

ArtFeature_2For this voyage, ARTSail succeeded in obtaining a 60-foot catamaran, Impossible Dream, that they would take to sea and live on. The boat is designed to accommodate the disabled and is operated as a maritime nonprofit. Owner Deborah Mellen offered up a heavily discounted price, says Agró Andruff, because she loved this concept.

So Koven and Agró Andruff, along with Capt. William Rey and first mate Ron Andruff, set off with a cargo of underwater cameras and other equipment. Koven would be filming reefs, mangroves, and the coastal environment; and Agró Andruff would be photographing him doing it. They would talk to divers and researchers along the way.

While the catamaran, dolphin sightings, and sunset shots off Turkey Point boded well, by the second day the weather started to pose problems, according to the blog Agró Andruff maintains on Facebook. The sunny skies belied the increasing winds and the obstacles those winds create for underwater filming.

“Not such a good start of our 3rd day of sailing and exploration,” she noted. “Woke up at 5:30 a.m., left Rodriguez Key, to head south to our first snorkeling site.... Sadly 13/14 knot westerly wind made the water completely milky with minimal visibility, so after thinking long and hard and consulting a dive shop in Looe Key…we took the decision to head back north instead towards Pennekamp [Coral Reef State Park].

ArtFeature_3“Mood on the Impossible Dream is not the best, but we knew some setbacks had to be expected. The heavy winds made the sailing fun, but Mark’s goal of documenting a certain amount of reef [is] harder than we hoped for.”

But what was far worse than the weather was what they did manage to document: extremely unhealthy coral, much of it bleached. Koven remembers diving in the Keys when he was young, when there were swarms of colorful fish; those days are long gone.

For Koven, this is the second stop as part of his nationwide eco-project “Taking One’s Temperature,” which started in Albuquerque, N.M., and was focused on recent flooding events.

He explains that coral reefs are particularly vulnerable to climate change, compared to say, bison or humans. “There is a very narrow window for [reefs] to be healthy,” he says. “Changes in water temperature, in PH [balance] -- the micro-organisms can’t handle that.”

The team decided to get on kayaks and document the world above water. But that wasn’t optimal either.

Blog: “Given the nasty conditions on the reefs we decided to anchor at Pennekamp and Uber down to Robbie’s marina [in Islamorada] to shoot the tourists feeding the oversized tarpons hanging by the docks. We tried to get in the water under the bridge and drift down to the docks to shoot from the water but were not as successful as we hoped, so we ended up doing most of the shooting from above the dock.”

ArtFeature_4In the end, wrote Agró Andruff, “Looks like another trip will be needed for him to gather the necessary footage he needs to accomplish his goal.”

Agró Andruff, a native of Turin and a sailor and diver herself, moved from New York to Miami four years ago. She knows the weather can be unpredictable and that launching an ambitious aquatic arts and science residency may be unpredictable as well. “Every day we learned so much…about the changes in the Keys” and the ecology of the area, she says of the five-day excursion. But it is also a learning experience about the program’s logistics, she notes.

For his part, Koven would have much preferred smooth sailing, of course, but the broader project is on course. The footage shot on land and sea will become a surround-sound film, with some overlaid audio, and will be presented in a 32-foot high dome expected to be placed between the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Frost Museum of Science in Museum Park sometime in 2017.

The project will have an interactive component, says Koven; the audience won’t be passive.

The next resident(s) may not spend as much time on and in the water; when not housed on a boat, they stay at what used to be the Cannonball residency in downtown Miami, which has been taken over by ArtCenter/South Florida.

For instance, the English artist Simon Faithfull, arriving this summer, will research the semitropical environment in conjunction with scientists, and then come up with a series of performances (video recorded), involving “a figure from the post-Anthropocene adrift in the tropical landscape.”

Agró Andruff hopes that ARTSail will just be a steppingstone toward a broader national movement, where arts and science combine to raise awareness of climate change. Maybe that would mean collaboration with universities, or grants that involve groups with similar missions across the country.

“No pun intended, but it is one drop at a time,” she says. “We can grow this ‘art ecosystem,’ make some kind of impact.”

They aren’t going to change the planet overnight, she realizes, but the increasingly fragile environment is waiting for the most invasive species of all to start taking it seriously, in every drop, field, and discipline.

Let us hope it’s not an impossible dream.

 

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