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Spectral Seas: Tackling Climate Change Through Storytelling

Published By Miriam Sauls / published on: April 26, 2021

A Bass Connections team has created an art installation on view in the lobby of the Rubenstein Arts Center. “This project is emblematic of the integrative and synthetic thinking that society needs to tackle the wicked challenges of climate change and sea level,” says Betsy Albright, assistant professor at the Nicholas School.

"Spectral Seas" on view in the Ruby's lobby. Featured image (above): Jonathan Henderson and Raquel Salvatella de Prada. Photos by Robert Zimmerman.

Jonathan Henderson and Raquel Salvatella de Prada have been collaborating for years on artistic responses to serious issues facing humans worldwide: migration, global warming, industrial exploitation, overpopulation. “To date our collaborations have addressed human and environmental crises in distant places,” says Salvatella de Prada. “But recently, we both felt the need to focus on pressing environmental issues here at home and to engage the local and academic communities in the exploration of those issues.”

Salvatella de Prada, associate professor of the practice of art, art history and visual studies, and Henderson, a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at Duke and a multi-instrumentalist, composer, writer, producer, and educator, brainstormed what it might look like, and thus was born a Bass Connections project, “Arts and the Anthropocene: Crisis and Resilience in North Carolina Waterways.”

Bass Connections projects, designed to bring together a diverse group of academics and students to shed light on a particular topic in a year-long multi-disciplinary collaboration, turned out to be a perfect vehicle for this rich and timely topic.

Two students working on "Spectral Seas" in the painting studio at the Rubenstein Arts Center. Photo courtesy Raquel Salvatella de Prada.
poster that advertises the spectral seas virtual opening reception

The Anthropocene, framed by scholars and activists as the current geological period during which human activity has had a fundamental influence on the climate and environment, is playing out with profound implications for communities living in proximity to water.

“Along the interconnected webs of waterways, coastline, and barrier islands, communities in North Carolina are grappling with how to plan for and respond to these seismic shifts in our surrounding environment and the corresponding impacts of storm surge, sea level rise, flooding, and contamination,” says Salvatella de Prada.

“For us to explore these issues, the Bass Connections structure was wonderful in how flexible it allowed us to be,” says Henderson.  An impressive array of speakers—from lawyers working around coal ash containment to experts on sea level rise in North Carolina to environmental sound recording professionals, to a variety of artists and activists represented by playwrights, photojournalists, composers, and puppeteers—worked with the class.

A close up, in-process view of the weaving with plastic yarn (plarn) that is the basis of the artwork.
Courtesy Raquel Salvatella de Prada.

“There’s an amazing kind of learning that happens when we focus our collective energy around one project.”—Jonathan Henderson

“Our goal was to figure out how these multiple modes of inquiry could reflect, refract, reference, reinforce, and reframe one another. There’s an amazing kind of learning that happens when we focus our collective energy around one project,” says Henderson.

While the first semester classes concentrated on speakers from the sciences and the arts, the second semester focused on creating art to tell the climate crisis story. Students were broken into teams, each of which imagined a way to convey their messages. Each group pitched a project, and as a class, they elected the project they found most compelling.

Video projections from footage taken on the Outer Banks overlay the weaving.

They chose Spectral Seas, a woven installation made with recycled and reused materials depicting an interpretation of a graph predicting future scenarios of sea level rise. After choosing to weave with “plarn” (plastic yarn), they consulted with local artists about constructing the 6 feet wide by 11 feet 7 inches high loom and the mechanics of weaving. The team recycled more than 400 plastic bags into strips of plarn and dyed the plastic as needed. Almost 200 hours of weaving went into the finished piece.

Other teams produced video projections from footage taken on the Outer Banks that overlay the weaving and a soundscape made from field recordings at the coast that accompanies it. (The finished piece is currently on view in the lobby of the Rubenstein Arts Center through May 2. Visiting guidelines.)

Student Kendall Jefferys writes: “Our installation conjures both meanings of the word spectral. In color, we highlight a spectrum of sea-level rise predictions that hinge on today’s climate action. But we are also reflecting on the spectral or ghostly qualities of making art about sea level rise: the eeriness of impending floods from increasing storms, the swathes of skeletal trees killed by saltwater intrusion in North Carolina, the graveyards and homes being washed out to sea, memories adrift in the swelling ocean, carried away with the rising waves.”

The students also created a beautiful, full-bodied website to tell the story of the class using ArcGIS StoryMaps. They presented a project overview, “Arts & Environmentalism” as part of the Spring 2021 In Conversation series, presented by Duke Arts and Duke Performances.

“This project is emblematic of the integrative and synthetic thinking that society needs to tackle the wicked challenges of climate change and sea level,” says Elizabeth Albright, assistant professor of the practice of environmental science and policy methods at the Nicholas School of the Environment and a participating lecturer. “Raquel and Jonathan excelled at integrating the strengths of each of our students—students who brought a variety of lived experiences, knowledge, and skills to the project.”

“This project is emblematic of the integrative and synthetic thinking that society needs to tackle the wicked challenges of climate change and sea level.”—Elizabeth Albright, Nicholas School

Justin Cook is a Durham-based photojournalist who has been documenting sea level rise on the Outer Banks. He shared both his photography for the class website and his experiences of storytelling through photojournalism. “Using climate change storytelling to convey how people’s daily lives are affected is how you get people to pay attention,” says Cook. “It’s not reading doomsday stats and figures about carbon emissions. It’s about the daily life of someone who could be your grandmother.”

Team member Hillary Smith, a PhD student in marine science and conservation at Duke, contributed to the initial development and scope of the project, using connections in her field and from the Duke Marine Lab to line up speakers. But in the course of the project, she also learned ways to enhance her own scientific work.

Plastic yarn in a dye vat. Courtesy Raquel Salvatella de Prada.
The Bass Connections team. Photo courtesy Raquel Salvatella de Prada.

“It has made me think about wanting to collaborate with artists in the future,” she says. “I learned from this that storytelling through art can be a wonderful way to communicate science and reach a different audience, and to reach people in a way that really affects them on an emotional level, which makes the message much more memorable.”

Undergrad Sarah Kelso agrees. “It’s been good to learn how to think about sea level rise through an artistic lens. I might look at a stream and wonder what the water temperature is or the salinity, but now I might also wonder how I could visualize this as a painting or a poem.”

Donovan Zimmerman, co-founder and director of Paperhand Puppet Intervention, worked with the students both semesters, using his vast experience collaborating and building large works of art to facilitate conversations that allowed the students to synthesize their ideas into physical things. He is very pleased with the outcome.

“The final piece came out quite beautiful. The students dug deep and I think learned a lot. What I wanted to bring to the conversation was the urgency needed for us to start changing our behaviors in order to survive ourselves. That is really what it comes down to.”

"It's been good to learn how to think about sea level rise through an artistic lens."—Sarah Kelso
Raquel Salvatella de Prada putting finishing touches on "Spectral Seas." Photo by Robert Zimmerman.

It must be noted that this whole project has taken place during COVID-19 restrictions. “The first time the class was together in three dimensions was April 1,” says Henderson. “We mostly knew our students in two dimensions in a little box on a Zoom screen, so it was fun to work on the installation together, in person.”

“I think we’ve been able to create something that everybody is proud of,” says Salvatella de Prada. “The experience has been so enriching and positive, and we have all learned different mediums we haven’t worked in before. We are hopeful that we can share the installation with a broader audience by showing it in other places in our community.”