Project Room

Do Plankton Have Feelings?

December 14, 2019—February 29, 2020


Cynthia Beth Rubin in collaboration with the Menden-Deuer lab at the Graduate School of Oceanography, at the University of Rhode Island

Cynthia Beth Rubin.

“Plankton may not have human-like emotions, but we can certainly have feelings for them.”

—Cynthia Beth Rubin

For artist and educator, Cynthia Beth Rubin, greater collective care for our global ecosystems can be nurtured through creating empathy for essential oceanic microscopic life.  For the past six years, Rubin has dedicated a large portion of her practice to making the invisible life of plankton visible and accessible. Plankton are an essential part of our ecosystem, they produce over half of the world’s oxygen and are an important link in the food chain.  Over time, she has developed a novel working relationship with scientists from the Menden-Deuer lab at the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, who have supported this project through the exchange of raw data collected from oceans in the North Atlantic, Antarctica, the Pacific Northwest, and Narragansett Bay.

For her solo show in the Project Room, Rubin debuts the newest work in this series— five large scale depictions of microscopic plankton printed on fabric.  Combining layers of painterly gesture and photographic detail, Rubin emphasizes the energy of the living organisms, transforming the image of plankton, which we usually encounter as a photorealistic photograph or scientific illustration, into an expressive portrait.  These renderings are metaphorically closer to jazz or contact improvisation than classical music or ballet, most likely because they recognize that plankton themselves are always in motion, relatively unpredictable, and frequently collaborating with other organisms.  As Rubin’s hand liberally intercedes, she emphasizes her role in the drawings, communicating a different message than a scientific illustrator might. There is no such thing as the real image, the drawings seem to whisper, especially in depictions of ever-evolving  life.  

Rubin has explored the capacity of new media art to be integrated with hand drawn design and printing techniques for over forty years. Throughout this time, she has worked to dismantle the false binaries between the analog and the digital, and the real and the abstract, through the pursuit of a process that involves manipulation of images inside and out of the computer.  Since embarking on a partnership with researchers at the Menden-Deuer lab, Rubin has provoked scientists and art audiences alike to think about what kinds of images evoke feeling in a viewer, applying approaches usually reserved for human life-drawing to subjects invisible to the human eye.

Rubin offered two open Plankton Drawing Workshops this fall, hosted by the New Haven Free Public Library. She led a group of participants, who ranged from experienced artists and scientists to curious library patrons and staff, through a series of timed exercises, asking them to make sketches of enhanced photographs and videos of microscopic plankton.

A selection of these drawings is included in the exhibition, and are viewable via Augmented Reality. To view the drawings, please pick up the iPad in the center of the gallery and search for the drawings in the ocean wallpaper. As the invisible is made visible, perhaps you too will feel a bit closer to our organisms that sustain our planet.

This exhibition was made possible by members of Menden-Deuer lab who directly contributed to the work on view, including Susanne Menden-Deuer, Professor of Oceanography, Amanda L Montalbano, Pierre Marrec, Heather M. McNair, Françoise Morison, Jacob Strock, Gayantonia Franzè, Mary Kane, and Elizabeth Harvey.

Plankton Drawing Workshops participants include Aurora Aaron, Alexandra Ahmend, Robbin Benefield, Baub Bidon, Jeanette Compton, Elliad Dagan, Mary Beth Decker, Sarah Fritchey, Aaron Goode, Giulia Gouge, Joan Gutierrez, Ellen Hoverkamp, Evie Lindemann, Julie Rose, Rose Simpson, Leslie Stasko, Maxime Sumrell, Celeste Tapia, and Aric Wellman.

Music by Bob Gluck.

Artist Bio

Cynthia Beth Rubin is a new media artist whose works evoke imagined narratives through interwoven layers of representation and abstraction, frequently combined with Augmented Reality and interactive experience. Based in New Haven, CT, her studio practice extends from New York City to Narragansett, Rhode Island and beyond. She is an early adaptor of digital imaging, transitioning from paint in the 1980s.  Her prints, videos, and interactive works have been shown on the ICC tower façade in Hong Kong, the Jewish Museum in Prague, the Cotton Club screen in Harlem, the ICA in London, the Jerusalem Biennale, and numerous international festivals featuring digital art.  Her work is included in Art in the Digital Age by Bruce Wands, The Computer in the Visual Arts by Anne Morgan Spalter, Arts en Réseau by INA, and other notable publications.

Exhibition Checklist (starting from the wallpaper and moving from left to right)

  1. Ocean Waters, 24 x 246 inches, wallpaper
  2. oceanic plankton collecting tube (corner)
  3. Blue Ciliate in Black and White, 56×36 inches, mixed media print on fabric
  4. Diatoms with Seaweed, 56×36 inches, mixed media print on fabric
  5. Dancing Ciliate in Red and Yellow, 56×36 inches, mixed media print on fabric
  6. Tintinnid in White, 56×36 inches, mixed media print on fabric
  7. Tintinnid with Diatom Chains, 56×36 inches, mixed media print on fabric
  8. iPad with HP Reveal software (pedestal)
  9. found objects used to aid the Plankton Drawing Workshop (pedestal)