What if the siren song of mussels could lead us to cleaner water?
How Natalie Jeremijenko's Mussel Choir helps us tune into the beauty of our waterfront and the health of our ecosystems.
Natalie Jeremijenko came to art following degrees in biochemistry, engineering, neuroscience and the history and philosophy of science. Her work—which has appeared at MoMA, two Whitney Biennials, the Guggenheim, and the V&A in London—strives to create what she terms an ‘eco-mindshift’ by reimagining environmentalism as a kind of open-ended game. Instead of the familiar conservationist language of edicts (consume less, recycle more), Jeremijenko fosters a more engaged and imaginative participation through work that takes the form of fanciful provocations and prototypes for flourishing systems. Bridging the worlds of art and tech, she composes playful interfaces with infrastructure, environment and technology that enable change.
Mussels are powerful little water filtration systems, sieving water in their hunt for food. As they filter, their tissue absorbs chemicals and pathogens that are present—including herbicides, pharmaceuticals and flame retardants. Impressively, one mussel can filter as much as 69 litres of water / hour.
Mussel Choir—like much of Jeremijenko’s work—takes place outside of traditional gallery walls. Shown first at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012, the piece was also installed in the East River, off Pier 35 as part of New York City’s Ecopark. With the aid of sophisticated technology, Jeremijenko turned 30 enormous concrete blocks designed to be mussel condominiums into a colony of bivalves that “sing” about the quality of their water as they filter it. By painstakingly gluing magnets and and transducers to the mussels’ shells that respond to changes in the magnetic field, Jeremijenko can translate things like depth of submersion and the mussels’ opening and closing (which corresponds to water quality) into acoustic phenomena like pitch and tempo with the help of some high-tech software.
“I’m interested in creating spectacles,” Jeremijenko says.
Why it Moves us, Forward
Jeremijenko’s art always seeks to address what she sees as a general ‘crisis of agency’ and an inability to ask fundamental questions about how we relate to the natural world. Beyond its inherent playfulness, Mussel Choir unlocks our sensory experience and connects us to our natural surroundings in new ways. By enabling us to tune in, Jeremijenko invites us feel more deeply aware and symbiotically related to the natural system upon which our health depends. We can feel the Earth breathing. Enchanted by the siren song, we gain a heightened awareness of the impressive abilities and adaptability of our ecosystem and begin to re-think how we might partner with nature in composing the future of environment health.
Jeremijenko is an Associate Professor in the Visual Art Department, NYU, where she directs the Environmental Health Clinic and is also affiliated with the Computer Science Dept. and Environmental Studies program.