Credit: Braden Fastier

Posted on 02 March 2021

New giant collaborative artwork reveals our connection to the marine world

Combining art with science is a powerful way of communicating complex concepts in the marine environment, from climate change to ocean acidification to ki uta ki tai (mountains-to-sea connection).

For the past seven years, we have been investigating ways for people to be engaged in marine management and the future of Aotearoa New Zealand’s vast marine world 

Gabby O’Connor, an artist-researcher, has successfully used art to communicate the relationship between our marine environments and complex concepts, and the risks of environmental and climate changes. Gabby is a PhD student at the University of Auckland and NIWA, funded through our Navigating marine socio-ecological systems project.

She has created The Unseen, a giant community artwork made from rope that is about to be unveiled at Wellington’s Massey University next week.

“At its heart, The Unseen is an art-sci collaboration that provides opportunities for people to participate directly in making art and accessing scientists and scientific research,” says Gabby. 

“It is not one or another, but all things at once” 

Karen Fisher, one of Gabby’s supervisors and the project leader, says, "This works helps us to understand the best ways for us to share scientific information about ecosystem-based management. 

"This holistic approach to managing the marine environment will only work if communities, iwi, businesses and resource managers understand and trust the data and tools. The Unseen helps to build trust and helps people connect and engage with science in a way that is meaningful to them."

Since 2017, Gabby has worked with more than 1,600 school students and 200 community members from Nelson, Marlborough, Wellington, Lower Hutt, Christchurch, and Auckland.

At the workshops, marine researchers present complex marine concepts such as ocean stratification, deep sea corals and fisheries, estuary ecology and bioacoustics. Participants then use rope to ‘draw’ what they learned from the presentation. Each rope drawing is added to The Unseen, meaning the artwork grows bigger with each workshop.

“What’s compelling about The Unseen is that you see this massive intricate artwork and you know that you’ve been part of that – you are a little piece in the puzzle. That helps you relate to your place in the world and how you engage with your environment and the ecosystem,” says Karen. 

More than 700 workshop participants have provided feedback so far and 96% of respondents mention the science concepts.

This is astounding and shows that art is an impressive medium for growing community engagement with our marine environment and the science that supports it, says Gabby. 

Gabby is now taking this growing collaboration on a final exhibition tour, with the first leg in Wellington. It will also travel to Tauranga later in the year.

Last week, a workshop was held with 57 students from Te Aro School, looking at the tides in the Wellington Harbour, and earthquakes and historical land reclamation (where the land has been reclaimed from the ocean). Another workshop is being held with Massey University students this week, so The Unseen continues to grow and change.

The Unseen (Wellington)  

Date: 9-26 March 2021  
Time: 12-4pm Monday to Friday 
Location: The Engine Room, Block 1, Whiti o Rehua - School of Art, College of Creative Arts, Massey University, Wellington.

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About the research

The Unseen is part of the Navigating marine social-ecological systems project from the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge. Led by Karen Fisher (University of Auckland), this project aimed to identify and/or improve our understanding of institutional, social and cultural factors that need to be incorporated into ecosystem-based management for it to be successfully used to manage Aotearoa New Zealand’s marine resources.

About the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge

The vision of Sustainable Seas is for Aotearoa New Zealand to have healthy marine ecosystems that provide value for all New Zealanders. It brings together scientists, social scientists, economists, and experts in mātauranga Māori and policy. It is funded by MBIE and hosted by NIWA. 

About the National Science Challenges

Sustainable Seas is one of 11 National Science Challenges. These align and focus Aotearoa New Zealand's research on large and complex issues, bringing together scientists and experts from different organisations and across disciplines to achieve a common goal.

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