Explore the fusion of art, science, and environmental advocacy with Margaret Wertheim. Discover how hand-crafted reefs of the “Crochet Coral Reef” project weave climate change awareness and hyperbolic geometry into creative expression.
Which wall does your research break?
I have long been aware that the majority of science communication reaches a primarily male audience. Very little science communication is targeted at women, and most women find a lot of what’s offered as sci-comm unappealing to them. For much of my career, I’ve been concerned with communicating science to women in the context of their lives. My first endeavor was in the 1980s and 1990s when I wrote regular science columns for Australian women’s magazines, including Vogue and Elle. I believe I am the only journalist who has done anything like this. Having now written for many prestigious science forums including the New York Times, Guardian, and New Scientist, I can attest it’s far harder to write about cosmology or evolution for fashion magazines. Women are 51% of the population yet they remain vastly under-represented in many STEM fields, including critical computational fields. We need to address this pipeline. In 1989/1990, I conceived, wrote, and co-directed a 6-part TV science series aimed at teenage girls for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – “Catalyst” was a world-first and won several international awards. In 2005, with my artist twin sister Christine Wertheim, I created an international science and art project that engages women all over the globe, now in more than 50 cities and countries. Our “Crochet Coral Reef” project combines art, craft, mathematics and marine biology into a vast collective meditation on climate change, and is now the largest participatory sci-art project on the planet with more than 20,000 participants – 99.9% women. We use the traditionally feminine-coded craft of crochet to create giant artistic simulations of coral reefs that are shown in art galleries and science museums, including at the Venice Biennale, Helsinki Biennale, Andy Warhol Museum, and the Smithsonian. crochetcoralreef.org
What inspired or motivated you to work on your current research or project?
One motivation is to engage people with climate change. Christine and I began our project in 2005 when few people knew about global warming. We grew up in Queensland, home state of the Great Barrier Reef, and were very aware of its destruction. In 2005, scientists were just realizing that warming water was causing coral bleaching, which meant climate change was not a distant problem but a danger here and now. In the past 18 years, the problem has escalated far faster than most people imagined, making our project ever more relevant. Another motivation lies in mathematics. The frilly curling shapes we crochet simulate actual reef organisms and are also models of “hyperbolic geometry,” which is an alternative to the “Euclidean” geometry we learn in school. Human mathematicians spent hundreds of years trying to prove that anything like hyperbolic geometry was impossible, yet sea creatures have been making these forms for millions of years. For humans, the easiest way to model such shapes is with crochet, a discovery made by Cornell University mathematician Dr. Daina Taimina. My sister and I have built on Tamina’s work to explore and create a whole taxonomy of “non-Euclidean” forms that we make manifest in yarn. So one motivation is to introduce women to abstract geometry through a craft practice that’s familiar and pleasurable to them.
In what ways does society benefit from your research?
Tens of thousands of women participants, along with several million people who’ve seen our exhibitions, have been introduced to geometrical concepts. Many participants tell me how empowering it is that they are being given access to mathematical ideas within the context of a craft they may have learned as children or associate with their grandmothers. It can also be noted that the non-Euclidean geometry underlying our project is a subset of the geometry underlying general relativity and the structure of the universe. So our project demonstrates that women doing handmade crafts can also be thinking about similar ideas to cosmologists studying the shape of spacetime. This is a vital retort to the siloing of knowledge which too often segregates STEM knowledge into a category that is supposedly beyond “normal” life. One of the things I feel most passionate about regarding this project is that it gives “ordinary” women access to ideas usually associated with elite academia. Another impact is to demonstrate the power of collective art practice. Art has long been conceived as the purview of ‘special’ individuals such as Leonardo da Vinci or Damian Hirst. Our project challenges this individualist ideology and suggests an alternative view of artistic ‘genius’. Our reefs are made by hundreds or thousands of people who come together to create. This is the ‘genius’ of the ‘hive mind’ – and it emulates the process by which living reefs are made. Real reefs are created by billions of tiny coral polyps. Each polyp can achieve little by itself, but together they make the Great Barrier Reef – the first living thing seen from outer space. The collaborative nature of our project sends a message that while each human being can also do little on their own to stop climate change, working together we can hopefully solve this problem.
Looking ahead, what are your hopes or aspirations for the future based on your research or project?
I hope that our project will inspire other artists – and the art world as a whole – to think about the value of collective creation. At the moment the art world is very organized around the idea of the ‘individual genius.’ This obsession creates an art environment that’s highly competitive and sociologically destructive. I believe that ALL people, given an opportunity, have the power to create art, and that our society urgently needs to find ways to empower everyone artistically. In this respect, contemporary science offers a fruitful model. Today almost all science is done by teams, often vast teams. It has been estimated that close to 10,000 people participated in finding the Higgs Boson, and that some 3,000 people were involved in the discovery of gravity waves by the LIGO detector. Even if only a few get the Nobel Prize, scientists understand that they can’t do cutting edge work now on their own. I regard my artistic practice as more in line with the teamwork spirit of contemporary science, and hope it can help to inspire a more collective ethos to emerge in the creation and evaluation of art.