Toxic Reef (detail), 2010-11. Crocheted and found plastic, dimensions variable.

Crossing Disciplines and Modalities: A Conversation with Margaret Wertheim

At first the vastness overwhelms; the colors, diversity, intricacy, and textures bedazzle. Only later does the realization set in that these fantastical crocheted coral reefs bear an urgent ecological message. Some are based on photographs, but most are pure imaginative improvisations. The masterminds behind the project are twins Margaret and Christine Wertheim, and the underlying protagonist is the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s living wonders. The sisters grew up in Brisbane, Queensland, home of the Great Barrier Reef, and moved to the United States in 1991. As Margaret notes, the Reef weighs heavily on the consciousness of Queens­­landers because it’s under attack. Margaret, who studied physics and mathematics at university for six years, is a science writer. She has also written and directed science documentaries for television and authored books on the cultural history of physics. Christine was a painter before earning her PhD in literature and logic; she now teaches in the critical studies department at CalArts in Valencia, California, where she has also served as director of the Experimental Writing Program. The Wertheims operate the crochet reef project through their small nonprofit Institute For Figuring (IFF), which is devoted to raising public awareness about the aesthetic and poetic aspects of science and mathematics. Crochet Coral Reef (CCR), which has received overwhelming support, has been primarily exhibited at art-related venues, though it has also appeared at the Science Gallery in Dublin and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. The art world embrace is completely the opposite of what the sisters had anticipated, and they deeply appreciate this develop­ment. In September 2014, the exhibition will travel to New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. In the meantime, the Wertheims are crowdsourcing funds for a book about CCR that will chronicle the evolution of the project and its staggering accumulations of corals, nudibranches, tubeworms, kelp, and other marine creatures.

Sarah Tanguy: How did this cross-disciplinary adventure start?

Margaret Wertheim: The story of the reef involves many different threads. Initially, the project started with our interest in mathematics. In 2003, we discovered the work of Daina Taimina, a Latvian mathematician who figured out that you could model hyperbolic geometry with crochet. Christine and I were very intrigued because we had grown up doing crafts. So, we started crocheting using Daina’s hyperbolic patterns. For about two years, we explored it in many ways, and in 2005, we had an exhibition of crocheted mathematical hyperbolics with Daina in Los Angeles. Following that, Christine came home one day with a big bag of fluffy wools—pink and orange hairy things—and she said, “I’m really sick of crocheting perfectly mathematical ones. I’m branching out.” I was a bit hesitant, being trained in science. She started making aberrations, mutating the pattern, and the pieces immediately started to look organic, like living things. After a few days, we had a bunch on our coffee table, and we said, “They look like a coral reef,” which is not a coincidence, because these are the structures of coral reefs. And, of course, natural organisms don’t ever do things with mathematical perfection. They’re not geometrically precise. Then Christine said, “We could crochet an entire reef.” We thought this would be a lovely idea. In 2005, there was a lot of coverage in the science press about how global warming and rising sea temperatures were devastating coral reefs. We joked that since the Great Barrier Reef was disappearing, we could crochet a woolen reef to fill the void and memorialize it. Six years later, that’s actually what’s happening. Scientists now understand that reefs are sickening and disappearing not only because of global warming, but also because of another CO2-related problem—acidification. The oceans are acidifying so quickly that if current trends continue, reefs may not be able to create their bony structures at all by the middle of this century.

ST: How do your professional backgrounds fuel this endeavor?

MW: CCR came out of my desire to bring mathematics and science to the public in more creative and innovative ways. But there is also the artistic dimension of the project. It is an installation, which we see as extending the tradition of feminist art, especially Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. We work very hard on the curatorial and sculptural elements to make it as beautiful as possible. The real genius in that comes from Christine, who understands both the critical analysis of art and how composition works. What started as a hobby eight years ago in our living room has been my full-time job for the last three years. First it took over our house, then it took over our lives.

The Green Reef from the IFF’s Crochet Coral Reef Traveling Exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, May 2013. Photo: IFF Archive With Voodoo Pile (at left) and Floret Grove (right) by Scottsdale Reef Crafters

ST: And now it’s taking over other peoples’ lives. Could you explain the community reefs?

MW: There are two aspects of the project. One is a core group of about 40 or 50 people around the world with whom we partner directly. They create work for our reefs, which we curate and fashion into exhibition-ready displays. That’s the work that travels around to different cities. Then there’s the other aspect, which occurs before the exhibitions, when we work with local communities to teach people these techniques so they can build their own reef. The biggest of these is Smithsonian Community Reef, which is a gynormous, beautiful creation. It’s the seventh “Satellite Reef.” The project has gone truly viral. Since 2009, communities in other cities have wanted to do it, even though they weren’t hosting our exhibition. We work with them as much as we can through the IFF. Communities all over the world are now involved. Croatian Reef is being done at a center for developmentally challenged children. Another incredibly beautiful reef, which embodies the spirit of the project, is Latvian Satellite Reef. In 2009, 600 women and children from all over Latvia made it under the direction of Tija Viksna, who runs a little craft gallery in Riga. These community reefs represent an ever-growing archipelago. We see them as sister reefs. Our greatest vision is to one day have all of the community reefs together in a single room. It would be marvelous to have the resources at some point to do this. Collectively, we call them “The People’s Reef.”

ST: Tell me about the technique and the materials.

MW: We’re crocheting these forms because crochet is the best way that humans have to make hyperbolic surfaces. Since coral reefs are hyperbolic creatures, it’s the logically necessary medium. It also turns out that crochet has particularly great qualities for modeling. It’s a bit like clay. And it’s a very easy technique to learn. Anyone can be taught to crochet in about 10 minutes, but the possibilities of how you can use it as a sculptural medium are amazing and endless. Crochet accommodates lots of different materials. Everybody starts off with wool, yarns of all different kinds. But you can use plastic, wire, videotape, and cut-up, recycled plastic shopping bags. Several people have used beads, like Sue Von Ohlsen, or tapestry yarn, like Helle Jorgensen, a woman in Sydney. Mieko Fukuhara, a new contributor from Japan, makes incredibly fine staghorn corals out of thread traditionally used for lace and doilies. Who would have imagined that a traditional medium like crochet could produce such diversity of form? That’s one of the reasons why this project has been so successful. The totality of it is sculpturally beautiful, which raises an interesting issue: CCR takes a huge amount of curating. We get piles and piles of stuff—it basically looks like there’s been an explosion in a thrift shop. We must take all those piles and make them into an effective exhibition. Chris­tine and I have honed our skills over the last six years. We get better, the community reefs get better, and so it’s all evolving. Each iteration grows on what’s gone before.

ST: What about the armatures?

MW: We have a language for that. If you have all of these pieces sitting on a table, it’s boring. To make it look great, you have to create a landscape. Over the years, we’ve developed a set of techniques that we call “moundifying” and “basketizing.” We put felt and batting around baskets and attach the corals to them to give height. We’ve used laundry baskets, plastic tubs, and wastepaper baskets as understructures. In a couple of cases, including Smithsonian Com­munity Reef, the structure is built from Sonotubes, which are cardboard forms used to pour concrete for building foundations. Making one of these reefs involves a huge amount of creative thinking about how you’re going to construct the landscape that supports the coral.

Pod World Plastic, from the IFF’s Crochet Coral Reef Traveling Exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, May 2013. Photo: IFF Archive Featuring plastic bottle crochet trees by Nadia Severns and Plastic Bottle Anemone by Vanessa L. Garcia.

ST: You also have different types of reefs. Toxic Reef was made out of plastic trash in response to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You call it a kind of evil twin to the Great Barrier Reef; Toxic Reef is ever-expanding like the patch itself. There’s also Bleached Reef.

MW: Bleached Reef invokes the phenomenon of coral bleaching, which happens when coral is sick. Corals are symbiotic organisms. They have such bright colors because little microorganisms, called zooxanthellae, live inside them. The zooxanthellae also help the corals feed. When corals get stressed due to pollutants, rising water temperatures, and ocean acidification, they expel these microorganisms from their bodies and go white. If healthy conditions are restored, the corals will get the zooxanthellae back, as well as their color. But if conditions stay bad, the corals begin to die.

ST: What about viewer reactions?

MW: I’ll tell you two stories, one funny and the other touching. CCR has two pieces made out of electro-luminescent wire, which was developed by the military for lighting tank interiors. These pieces look like bioluminescent sea creatures. Every time we’ve shown them, men are instinctively drawn to them out of thousands of other pieces. They walk straight over and have long, involved discussions about the technology of these flashy, electrical things. These two works were made by our oldest contributor, Eleanor Kent, who’s an 81-year-old media artist in San Francisco. She calls it her “granny tech.” The other reaction took place at Track 16 in Los Angeles, my hometown. Several groups of women traveled especially to see the show, and one day, one of them came up to me virtually in tears and said, “This is the most moving thing I’ve seen. The amount of women’s work, the love and the care that’s gone into this, and you putting it all together.” To me, that was the greatest compliment because it is the work of hundreds and hundreds of people. It’s such a different experience from being in the presence of one person’s work (or what’s named as one person’s work) in a gallery.

ST: It’s like a cathedral when you think about how many people were involved in creating it.

MW: Many people compare it to the AIDS quilt, and I think they’re right. At least 5,000 people have now contributed. Most are not professional artists. The majority are middle-aged women, and that’s the aspect of the project I feel most proud of.

ST: Do you think that the response is so passionate because we are desperate for an activity that brings different people together to express their creativity not only as individuals but also as a collective?

Installation at Sant Ocean Hall of the Smithsonian Community Reef designed to mimic the Smithsonian’s display of an ancient Ordovician coral reef.

MW: There’s undoubtedly a huge amount of that. From the beginning, we conceived of it as a community project. When I put a notice on the IFF’s Web site, I honestly thought there would be 30 people at most who might be interested in this weird fusion of art, science, mathematics, and ecology. Slowly people trickled in, all self-selecting. If you think about it, this is really what life on earth is. Life starts very, very, very slowly from very simple, single-cell organisms four billion years ago, then gradually evolves until you get to the Cambrian period about 500 million years ago. Suddenly, there’s a wild explosion of life forms. The project has really been like that. It’s continuing its exponential growth beyond my wildest imaginings. So I’ve had to ask myself the same question: Why? It’s because of a number of things. One is it’s very rare in our society for disciplines as disparate as math, marine biology and ecology, handicraft, and community art practice to be brought together. We’re used to thinking of these things in separate categories, but for me, these disciplinary boundaries are artificial. When my mother taught me handicrafts, I was falling in love with mathematics at the same time. As I’ve grown up, it seems more and more that you get channeled into narrow areas of specialization. I’m lucky that having a twin has enabled me to live two lives. Through Christine, I’ve gotten to live vicariously in the arts. And vice-versa. This project has been successful because a lot of people are hankering for connectivity and threads between things. They find the increasing specialization and segmentation of society and our professional lives alienating. Here you are crocheting, which is a domestic handicraft; but at the same time, you are learning about the math that ultimately underlies relativity and will show us about the structure of space-time. It’s not just crossing disciplines, it’s crossing modalities of being human. Again and again, we hear from contributors and participants how important it is to them that they are part of something collective. Are you a fan of “Star Trek?”

ST: Of course, and I know where this is going.

MW: We think of the crochet reef project as the Borg of craft. Christine and I are the Borg queens. There’s a beautiful metaphor in the project. Something like Smithsonian Community Reef is magnificent because it represents the work of 850 people. No individual could have produced it. It’s a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Art historian Sarah Tanguy lives in Washington, DC.