Gardens of the Anthropocene by Tamiko Thiel, 2016-2017

Mutant giant red algae invade Salem Harbor!

Standing at the water’s edge, the mutant giant red algae (Alexandrium collosus) ebb and flow around you, surrounding you with their spores. The giant algae are virtual, but the danger of them increasing to toxic levels more frequently with warming waters is real.

We are now in the Anthropocene, a new geologic epoch during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. My work series Gardens of the Anthropocene, originally commissioned by the Seattle Art Museum in 2016, looks at how climate change could affect local fauna. For this project I talked extensively with climate scientists at the University of Washington Center for Creative Conservation to understand basic climate change concepts and scenarios both locally in Seattle and for the world as a whole. I found that the algae of the genus Alexandrium was a primary culprit of red tides not only on the West Coast, but in many other parts of the world – including New England.

Based on this actual science but pushed into a dystopian science fiction scenario, my AR installation aims to give visitors an emotional encounter with normally invisible dangers of climate change by showing the microscopic Alexandrium Fundyense mutated into animated, giant red algae that ebb and flow far above current water levels.

Many effects of climate change, such as flooding due to rising water levels exacerbated by storm surges, or of shifts in flora and fauna as climate zones “migrate” northward, are not experienced by a majority of people because changes are incremental over larger time periods, or happen during catastrophic events where only local residents experience them directly. Here, augmented reality can give visitors an experience rooted at a specific site that expresses the dangers that could affect it in the future.

The Salem Maritime Museum addresses rising water levels exacerbated by storm surges directly on this page on its website. Additionally, rising water temperatures and other effects of climate change facilitate the harmful algal blooms (HAB), often called “red tides,” which can make shellfish that feed on the algae toxic for humans. In 2016 levels were low, but graphs tracking blooms over years show a large bloom can happen after a long quiescent period. Hopefully government funding to monitor these levels will remain intact – and the government will realize that closing its eyes to danger will not make it go away.