Credit: Charlotte Panton

Posted on 09 March 2022

Patterns bring The Unseen to life

Gabby O’Connor’s bright idea bringing art and science together came to her when she was in Antarctica, watching measuring instruments being lowered into the icy ocean depths.

The result is The Unseen, an art-science collaboration and work of the unseen hands of thousands of Kiwis. It is on display in the Oceanarium of the National Aquarium of New Zealand for three months from Friday (11 March).

Over the past five years the creative science communication superhero and final year PhD student has raised awareness of the link between the marine environment and environmental change through working with schoolchildren and their whānau on The Unseen.

She had been documenting marine ice and working with an ocean physics team from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) when she had her ‘aha’ moment.

“Rope and cable ties are the essential tools of oceanographers. I watched measuring instruments on ropes being lowered into the sub-zero ocean through a hole in the sea ice. As they went down, the rope made drawing like patterns on the water surface. This is when I saw the potential of rope as a drawing material,” says Gabby.

The Unseen has been part of her PhD research, made with the support of Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge, the University of Auckland, and NIWA.

While the latest iteration of The Unseen is on show, the Aquarium’s educators will be extending this artwork into Hawke’s Bay’s classrooms as part of Seaweek, where children will be using rope and cable ties to ‘draw with’.

If laid in a straight line, the rope used in The Unseen so far would stretch for 12km – almost half the distance between Napier and Hastings.

The Unseen enables participants to explore complex scientific ideas, bringing them together with marine biologists, oceanographers and others.

The Unseen has been developed to help communities understand how marine ecosystems work, to understand how they will change as the climate does,” says Gabby.

Each student contribution will be added to the larger artwork until it departs for its next showing at another location, in June.

The National Aquarium is also planning workshops for the public, and incorporating it into the April school holiday programme.

This is very new for the National Aquarium, to have an artwork on display, let alone one of this scale, says Manager Rachel Haydon. “But Gabby’s message and methods are so engaging to help people understand some of these larger issues the ocean is facing. We can’t wait to see how it is received.”

The rope used will be recycled for other community projects and groups who have expressed an interest in repurposing the pieces. The cable ties will be donated to a recycled plastics design programme which transforms plastic waste into new objects.

The Unseen is on display at the National Aquarium of New Zealand from 11 March – 11 June 2022. Entry is included with general admission. Gabby O’Connor will be speaking about the project on 8 June, World Ocean Day.



Media contact

Jess Soutar Barron 027 229 7012    

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 around 250 ecologists, biophysical scientists, social scientists, economists, and experts in mātauranga Māori and policy from across Aotearoa New Zealand. Twitter | LinkedIn | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

About the National Science Challenges 

Sustainable Seas is one of 11 National Science Challenges funded by MBIE. 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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