Interview with MORPHOLOGIC: Miami’s Dynamic (Coral Crusading) Duo
Epicystis crucifer (flower anemone) green and gold color morph. A native Floridian sea anemone species that demonstrates morphologic variations in nearly every color of the rainbow. 10 cm in diameter. Fluorescence photograph.
MORPHOLOGIC is a scientific art endeavor led by marine biologist Colin Foord and designer Jared McKay. The two have been best friends and collaborators since middle school. With the aquarium as their primary medium, they explore the artistic possibilities of living coral reef organisms in a manner that facilitates creative and educational discourse about the submerged worlds of the coral reefs that exist just off Miami’s shores. Their lab/studio is a state-certified coral aquaculture facility and ultimately they seek to make juxtapositions between the coral reef and humanity’s collective aspirations as a species vying for dominance over others. As the only US city with coral reefs, Miami is a prime location and owing to the burgeoning art scene the pair have found ample means and audience to expound their widely intimidated oeuvre; profiting Miami’s delicate natural ecosystems and deepening international recognition of the ‘magic city’ as a truly one-of-a-kind locale.
Can you summarize your practice?
Colin: In order to summarize what we do, it is important to first make clear that we believe that Miami is the only place in the world where our ideas can really take root, resonate and become reality. Miami is unique in that it is the sole city on the US mainland to have access to a coral reef. And yet until now, the influence of the coral reef has been largely absent from Miami’s pop cultural imagery. We want to change that. As both a city dweller and a marine scientist, I see that the goings-on of our colorful and culturally diverse city often reflect the going-ons of the reef. Coral reefs were really the first urban environments on the planet. Real estate is always at a premium on the reef, and therefore successful organisms wind up forming symbiotic and mutualistic relationships with one another. The amount of symbiosis and mutualistic interactions on a coral reef is incredible. And yet, life is cutthroat and can end without apology, just like in the city.
Jared: It also shouldn’t be overlooked that Miami is literally built on top of a fossilized coral reef. Cities are concrete encrustations of the earth, much like coral reefs are limestone encrustations of the seafloor. So in a sense our aquariums aim to create new worlds with a juxtaposition of the city and the reef, both urban environments. Miami is a neon city. The same goes for the animals that we work with; they literally glow-in-the-dark.
Colin: Over the past 9 years that I’ve lived in Miami, I have witnessed an art and music scene that has increasingly become more organized and cooperative, and the result has been an increasingly successful art and music scene. This inspired us to take an idea rooted upon natural symbioses (coral reef life), and further it into a metaphor for an auspicious urban existence. We design aquariums that frame this reef life within the context of Miami that will hopefully enlighten folks about more than just these seemingly alien organisms. Morphologic is a DIY attempt to start with an idea, and grow organically to fill a void that until now has been overlooked.
A close up of “Flower Power”, an aquarium installed for Alex Grey’s art show during Art Basel 2008. Epicystis crucifer (Flower anemones) on black marbles.
What kind of problems do you face in cultivating and maintaining eco-systems?
Jared: An unavoidable problem that we face is that we are dealing with organisms that require constant care and attention. From a practical standpoint, we can only start creating “art” once we have met all of the basic biological criteria and aquariological infrastructure necessary to make the creatures happy, thrive, and reproduce. These animals are essentially on constant life support, and we are their caregivers. If some environmental parameter such as the temperature or pH swings outside of their acceptable levels, we run the risk of losing lives. That means Colin and I can’t leave our lab alone for more than 24 hours without getting overly concerned that something could go wrong in our absence.
Colin: Something that really blew my mind as a freshmen marine science student (2000) was that I came into the University of Miami with the expectation that my professors would be highly knowledgeable on the requirements for keeping coral reef organisms alive in aquaria. I quickly learned that your average marine scientist is far more adept at studying preserved specimens in bottles of formaldehyde. At least at that time, there was this disconnect amongst scientists between the perception of an aquarium as simply being ornamental, and that of its value as a living science experiment. An aquarium can provide insights that can’t easily be determined simply from scuba diving or a lifeless specimen in a jar. I eventually donated my 90 gallon reef aquarium to the marine science lab my junior year because I found it completely absurd that there was no life in that room. Seven years later, this aquarium is still running smoothly through the joint cooperation of student volunteers and the professors I had instructed regarding its care.
“Magical Flask” Ricordea florida corallimorphs (orange and green color morphs) in an Erlenmeyer flask with green silicone tubing and assorted lab equipment. Fluorescence photograph.
Only two decades ago, keeping a coral alive in an aquarium was a rare feat, out of the hands of the average home aquarist. At that time, the care requirements for these delicate animals were still relatively unknown. But with advances in technology and scientific understanding, there is now an entire economy built on the manufacture and sale of specialized lighting, filtration equipment, and chemical additives for coral reef aquaria. We are ourselves part of this economy, as we sell the clones of our broodstock to aquarists around the world in order to pay the bills and fund our art projects.
Jared: Another major obstacle we encounter is the length of time it takes to realize our visions. We are simply limited by the slow growth of many of these corals. This doesn’t even necessarily factor in the trial-and-error that comes with the unknown territory we often find ourselves in. We are introducing materials and animals to each other that have never interacted… ever. It usually takes anywhere from 2 to 12 months for us to achieve the perfect image, depending on the project. This also doesn’t factor in the budgetary constraints that we face as far as actualizing the ideas in the notebook are concerned. Simple, i.e. cheaper, concepts take priority at this point. Fortunately simple is still satisfying. Our ability to pursue new aquarium art projects is directly related to just how freely people are spending money on their pastimes since our business, Coral Morphologic, is what manages to fund us. And with everything else related to the economy right now, we’ve been forced to scale back and set priorities.
“Metamorphosis” Perhaps the first recorded documentation of a Ricordea florida larva undergoing metamorphosis into a tiny corallimorph polyp. 3mm in diameter. Microscope photograph.
What do you find most interesting about what you do?
Colin: Our primary scientific interest revolves around a group of scientifically neglected animals called corallimorphs that are common in local waters, yet are seldom noticed. Making new discoveries about these corallimorphs is a source of never-ending interest and fulfillment for me. Because they are so under-studied and neglected by the scientific world, we are making observations in some cases that have never been noticed before. This past spring we sexually reproduced Ricordea florida and raised the spawn to maturity. To our knowledge this has never been documented before. (pictured above) We don’t take for granted how lucky we are to be able to do something so novel in an increasingly microscoped world. But rather than keeping this information within the context of a lab notebook or scientific journal, we try to frame these creatures in the context of the modern society that we are living in.
The corallimorphs share similarities with both sea anemones and corals, but are in an order (corallimorpharia) all to their own. In the pantheon of anthozoans (corals and their allies), the corallimorphs are sort of the neglected step children. They are enigmatic, and as their name suggests, come in a wide array of morphologic diversity within individual species. One of our primary goals is to elevate people’s awareness and understanding of these creatures, while using them as role models to reflect an important message to humanity about our responsibility to the planet. We are seeing to it that these creatures elevate into the wider human consciousness.
Epicystis crucifer (flower anemone) gold color morph. A native Floridian sea anemone species that demonstrates morphologic variations in nearly every color of the rainbow. 8 cm in diameter. Fluorescence photograph.
Corallimorphs, corals, and sea anemones are exceptional creatures that command utmost respect. For instance, they are solar powered (photosynthetic), harboring a collection of unicellular algae within their tissues that then provides them with the majority of their energy requirements. This is an archetypal form of symbiosis. However, if conditions are not to the liking of either animal, the algae may be ejected, leaving the coral “bleached” and starving. In an age of global warming and pollution, this important symbiotic relationship is easily disturbed via mankind’s meddling.
From an evolutionary standpoint, these corallimorphs are one of the most successful wavelengths a living animal can be on. The Darwinian concept of success is based on the ability to pass down parental DNA (via sexual reproduction) to successive generations. However, corallimorphs are a type of animal that can clone themselves (though they can also reproduce sexually). The amount of morphologic diversity within several of these local species is amazing. Individuals are truly unique like the proverbial snowflake. By collecting only a few individuals from these colonies, we leave behind identical polyps to continue propagating in the wild. Then with the collected polyps, we further culture them in our lab. These cloned ‘offspring’ can then be distributed around the world into new aquariums where they will be cared for by human hand. This is where “Darwinian selection” meets the future. These chosen corallimorphs are so successful that they have gotten another creature to tend to them and spread them around the planet to then colonize human-engineered reef aquaria. However, this process is fundamentally different from domestication, as the genome will always be identical to the their ‘original’ brethren still living in the waters of Florida’s reefs. We see this as a novel symbiosis between corallimorphs and humanity that has suddenly ‘selected’ them for greater ‘success’. In the wild, these colonies of corallimorphs are at the mercy of the elements and are ephemeral over the years. Essentially, we are offering these creatures the possibility of infinite life, as there is no end to their genetic blueprint so long as the successive clones are tended to by people who care. These creatures defy the concept of life and death as we humans know, and that is truly awesome.
A frontal view of “Flower Power”. Epicystis crucifer anemones on black marbles.
What is the scope of your intent regarding the creation of environments?
Jared: We try to create aquarium worlds that simultaneously have abstract and literal components to them. If we were to deconstruct these environments, we are left with individual components that are in and of themselves magical lifeforms. Artists often create works that are abstracted from something inspirational to them, and while this is also true for us, there is also a perspective to our work that tries to go in the opposite direction of abstraction. These radially symmetric corallimorphs are about as close to an archetypal Form as you can find in the material world.
Many of our aquariums feature these natural lifeforms encrusting synthetic materials. In Miami, ‘synthetic’ has almost always won over ‘organic’. In our culture these concepts have come to lie on opposite ends of a linear spectrum. But what we do is a hybrid approach to these ideals. The form of ‘organic’ we work with is highly fluorescent and requires cutting edge technology and chemistry to thrive. It is a synthesis. There is something futuristic about the worlds we create, and yet they are composed of some of the most archaic animals on the planet. There is message in that concept alone.
A top down view of “Flower Power”. Water flows evenly over the top edge of this aquarium creating the illusion of a perfect cube of water.
Can you discuss your wider mission of awareness/conservation?
Colin: A significant goal of Coral Morphologic is to create a “living database” of as many morphotypes of Floridian corallimorphs as possible. Perhaps when mankind is prepared to launch out of our solar system in search of new digs, a few of these creatures will be tagging along on the “Insterstellar Ark”, as their care requirements will certainly be a lot less cumbersome than say, a giraffe, and can happily clone their way along in suspended animation. In fact their presence might just make the monotonous voyage a bit less ‘cold and depressing’ to the fellow human travelers. This is new form of symbiosis only possible through human cooperation with the wild creatures. There is a mythology at work with the corallimorphs, and we intend to relate the story in such a way that might cause human kind to reflect upon ourselves as the symbionts of an important planet.
Jared: If we had to name a singular long term goal for our work in Miami over our lifetime, it would be to eventually create a ‘morphologic public aquarium’ that is as much an art gallery as it is a traditional public aquarium. It would utilizes local marine species to make statements on the world and city around us. Specifically the very small species that otherwise go overlooked by a place like the Miami Seaquarium (which is a privately owned marine theme park). It would be a place for children and anyone who wishes to wonder, ask questions, and come away with a greater appreciation for our local environment and humanity’s responsibility towards the planet [.]
Epicystis crucifer (flower anemone) orange and green color morph. A native Floridian sea anemone species that demonstrates morphologic variations in nearly every fluorescent color of the rainbow. 10 cm in diameter. Fluorescence photograph.
Clearly Miami’s art community lacks a meaningful connection with its coral reefs. As a marine biological art endeavor, MORPHOLOGIC seek to bridge this gap. Just in time for this Monday’s deadline they proposed two projects to The Knight Foundation: one which will satisfy their need for a hurricane proof warehouse in the Wynwood Art District and one which involves large-scale video projections on highly visible buildings throughout Miami.
Although field trips to their current digs are charming (and highly recommended) a warehouse in Wynwood would not only facilitate the undertaking of more ambitious projects, but also broaden the scope of their contribution to the community. Similarly the projections would underline Miami’s exceptional status as the only US city on a coral reef in addition to reinforcing MORPOLOGIC’s greater mission to demonstrate the metaphorical similarities between the coral reef and Miami’s colorful urban environment by literally colonizing buildings, just like rocks on a reef.
For more information please visit: www.morphologicstudios.com