Can art help save marine life? Socio-ecological artist designs new coral reefs using virtual reality

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Sculptor creates fantastical VR worlds to protect marine life
03:44 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

On the sea floor in Cozumel, Mexico, a steel sculpture has become a living coral reef.

Titled “Zoe,” it’s the brainchild of Colleen Flanigan, a socio-ecological artist whose work captures both the whimsical beauty of the ocean and the urgent need to protect it.

Based in the coastal town of Santa Cruz, California, she’s acutely aware of the threats facing the oceans – and their inhabitants.

“(Corals are) very like to be the first major ecosystem to go extinct,” Flanigan warns, due to “ocean acidification and climate change.”

Not content with simply documenting marine decline in her art, she has taken action.

“Zoe” is a “living sculpture,” which she hopes will help revive coral communities.

This underwater structure is charged with a low-voltage current that causes sea minerals to deposit on its surface, forming a natural substrate onto which corals can cement.

In time, Zoe has become a functioning coral reef. The goal is to provide a habitat for endangered biodiversity and engage with the art community about marine protection.

Flanigan has created four more underwater reef-scapes. Although they are built beneath the sea, the artist develops them in the virtual world. She uses Google’s Tilt Brush app to “sculpt in space.”

Launched in 2016, Tilt Brush is a way to paint in 3D. With a VR headset, two hand-held controllers, and a gaming PC, the technology allows its users to enter a giant virtual orb where strokes of color can be created in any direction.

Very different to painting in 2D, Flanigan says “the whole world around you becomes a blank canvas where you can dream, play, escape. It’s about being free, and I really feel liberated.”

Flanigan collaborates with James Tunick of New York-based IMC Lab to convert her metal reef models into VR. Once they are loaded into Tilt Brush, her design concepts can be expanded using the app, such as adding imaginary fish and corals to simulate the evolution of Flanigan’s living habitats. The fluidity between the physical world and VR is what appeals to the artist.

Flanigan’s love affair with the tech began when Google invited her to become a Tilt Brush Artist-in-Residence in August 2016. Along with a group of fellow creative consultants, she helped test the app and gave feedback to the development team before the technology was released. It was a turning point in her career.

Flanigan has since become a leading artist on the platform, using it for a range of creative visual pieces, including her coral designs.

“Before Tilt Brush, I felt that a lot of my colorful and fanciful ideas would be trapped forever in my head because I wouldn’t know how to get them out,” she said. “After Tilt Brush, I can go in there and spend a few hours and pretty quickly whip out a bunch of different coral colonies and different fish.”

For her next project, Flanigan is working on a hypothetical projection of what our world will look like in the future. She is developing an augmented reality piece to help people envisage the destruction resulting from rising sea levels.

“Art is a catalyst for change,” she says. “It can help speak to people who aren’t thinking about the ocean … so everyone can start to say, ‘now I see how I’ll get involved in this next phase of rebuilding a sustainable future for our planet.’”