Name: Dr. Howard Ferren
Title: Director of Conservation at the Alaska SeaLife Center
Location: Seward, Alaska
Q:Can you briefly describe the GYRE Project?
A: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines marine debris as any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, and is disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes. Marine debris is a global problem that results in impacts to marine species and ecosystems, and is a threat to human health and safety. I won’t get too graphic about this because it may be too disturbing, but if you see what entanglement in marine debris can result in for animals, or ingestion of plastics by albatross adults that then regurgitate marine debris plastics to their chicks believing it to be food which then can kill them, or ghost nets and derelict traps that continue to inflict mortality for years after being lost or abandoned, or the microplastics being ingested along with persistent organic pollutants that work their way up the food chain, you will come to appreciate the challenge we have imposed on our marine ecosystems through our waste and carelessness. We can try to clean up our beaches and we can write scientific papers, but in the end, if we do not grip people’s emotions and influence attitudes and behaviors about this problem we will not reduce it or solve it. Our intention is to communicate the problem through another language, the language of art. Through art we will reach a broader slice of culture and touch upon emotions to bring this tragedy to the forefront of our thoughts and actions.
The project we are developing includes a June 2013 sea expedition with a team of notable artists and scientists. The expedition will be aboard the vessel Norseman and journey from Unalaska Island in the Aleutian Island chain eastward along the Alaska Peninsula, Katmai National Park, and Kenai Fjords National Park and terminate in Resurrection Bay. We will stop at beaches and document and collect marine debris…yes, even in our far distant and “pristine shores” we have our share of marine “litter” that in many cases reaches our shores after traveling along ocean currents from countries across the North Pacific Ocean.
A marine debris art exhibition (GYRE) scheduled to debut in January 2014. The GYRE art exhibition will include works from the expedition artists and will also include works from more than 30 artists from around the world.
After a 12 week exhibition in Anchorage the exhibition will travel throughout the United States and possibly globally by the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibition Services. In addition, we are working with a film team lead by JJ Kelly and photographer Kip Evans as we hope to produce a film about the expedition and global problem of marine debris, and publish a book about the expedition, artists and marine debris.
The bottom line is we will inform new audiences about the problem of marine debris using art and visual mediums for communicating the problem. We intend through this to influence personal awareness and behaviors about waste and enhance marine debris policy discussions so we see greater global traction on reducing marine debris and mitigating the current problems.
Q: What do you want people to do as a result of the GYRE Project Exhibition? You want people to care about the marine debris issue but what do you want to happen next?
A: Good question. But let me change the question just a bit. After you learn about marine debris and see the exhibition…”what do YOU want to see happen next?” I hope we can inform people through their visual senses, appeal to their emotions and impact their attitudes and behaviors. Ultimately much of the global problem is a result of individual behavior. From production and waste of non re-useable and disposable plastics to poor and thoughtless behavior when someone throws a plastic bottle on the ground or a cigarette butt in the street gutter or a fish net is discarded at sea. We have to stop our thoughtless behaviors. The global ocean is not limitless and we are trashing it and with the trash we are bringing havoc and injury and death to species that live in and on the ocean, species that have not caused the problem and have no natural experience with these unnatural objects to know how to react to debris. They get entangled in it, entrapped by it, they eat it, and they perish. It is worse than sad. It is tragic and it is the global ocean that ultimately sustains our own lives and we are destroying it. Think about that. What we have to do is stop trashing our oceans. Do you intend to do your part?
Q: The Alaska SeaLife Center is one of CA’s Coastal Ecosystem Learning Centers. What role did you play in the 2011-2012 Coastal America Ocean Art Contest at the Alaska SeaLife Center?
A: I proudly served as an art jurist. I have a personal passion about art and you will find my office wall not covered with scientific papers and charts and tables…but art. The art serves as an appealing invitation for people to stop at my office and we can begin talking about the art and the discussion then leads to the issue. It is the transition of the discussion to the content that art is so helpful to accomplish. It was fascinating for me to spend hours looking at the Coastal America Ocean Art contributions and reading about the student artists’ interpretive messages about the marine topic the student selected. It was great, but as so often, quite a challenge when so many wonderful pieces of art are presented to select from.
Q: The kids are trying to convey the principles of Ocean Literacy through their artwork. How does this compare to what you are doing with the marine debris issue and your exhibition?
A: I am proud to say I will follow in their footsteps! We are in fact on the same path. Some topics are very difficult to capture in words although some people have a gift of literary art such as Dr. Carl Safina who can translate complex marine conservation topics and science with understandable literary art. But I do believe that our eyes are the portals to our souls. Our keen sense of sight is our most intense sensory tool and if you can hold an image to the eyes that captures the attention, you then have access to distill with shape and color and context more of a message than words can deliver and in some cases with a far more raw emotional connection. Reach gently; touch the soul with art and you will leave an image for a life time. Art can be so powerful and can be an important tool in communicating ocean topics. You bet…this is exactly what we are doing with the marine debris expedition and art exhibition…ocean literacy. As a matter of fact, we will have education components associated with the GYRE art exhibition that involves kids and marine debris art.
Q: What do you hope the kids who participated in the CA Art Contest will take away from this experience?
A: I’m going to be really specific and direct and maybe a bit too philosophical, but these kids are our next generation leaders and deserve my respect and guidance:
- Study science and be in touch with the world around you…I think their art shows this is possible.
- Be expressive and use art (visual, music, theatrical and literary) to build relevancy to your human experience….the topics selected and the various approaches to tackle the issue tell me these students understand the tools and the opportunity to be creative as they express their experiences with a topic of marine content.
- Don’t ever be shy to capture your feelings and interpretations…I think the Coastal America Art Contest has succeeded and I think you will have even a greater number of students contributing in the future.
Q: Is there anything else that you would like to add regarding the GYRE Project or CA Art Contest?
A: Be passionate and don’t give up. You will come to learn that the topics you are addressing are more critical than you may understand today.
To learn more about the GYRE Project and watch a brief informational film clip, visit www.anchoragemuseum.org/gyre. To read Dr. Howard Ferren’s full interview and learn more about the marine debris issue and the inspiration behind the GYRE Project, visit www.coastalamerica.gov.
The GYRE Project Team:
Artists: Pam Longobardi, Mark Dion, Alexis Rockman, Sonya Kelliher-Combs and Andy Hughes.
Experts: Dr. Carl Safina, Blue Ocean Institute, Dr. Nikolai Maximenko, International Pacific Research Center, Dr. Keith Criddle, University of Alaska.
Exhibit Curator: Dr. Julie Decker, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center