Art is founded on the pillars of representation, imagination, and creativity. It is born from endless possibility and intangible concepts and sits as an opposite to the concept of science. Quantitative and methodical, science embraces all that is tested, measurable and quantifiable. How then, is there a symbiotic relationship between the two?
Despite these concepts seemingly juxtaposing each other, there exists a cohesive symbiosis for these disciplines. Godfrey-Smith calls the use of art in science an “imaginative leap” whereby artistic representation continued the work that science was not yet able to measure. For example, imagining the consciousness or mind of an octopus before we could even begin to test such a concept.
It is interesting to consider how the relationship has since developed from the ‘imaginative leap’. I would argue that since the precedence of social media and accessibility to online forums, art has not just creatively ‘filled in the blanks' of our understanding but acted as a bridge for science to be more accessible to the public. It has enabled the lay public to engage with, and participate in, scientific research and understanding of cephalopods. The endless accounts of magnificent underwater photography presenting the deep-sea cephalopods that were not previously popularised increase awareness of cephalopods and highlight these creatures in a novel way.
Art in its many forms, therefore, becomes an accessibility route for public understanding. Cephalopods are interesting animals. Their significance is imprinted throughout culture and history, throughout mythology and art. More recently, cephalopod studies have influenced behavioural science, neuroscience, genomics, camouflage technology, and robotics within the modern-day. In popular culture, a more recent example is ‘My Octopus Teacher’, the Oscar-winning documentary on Netflix. This is another modern-day example of bringing cephalopod understanding to the public through an artistic lens.
Research is growing in the area considering the intersection between the visual arts, animal studies, and activism. As David Attenborough said: ‘no one will protect what they don't care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced. In this way, art is providing people with an experience of the natural world, without them having to be physically rooted in it.
I spoke to artist Carmen Haselup (@tidelinetrashandtreasures) from West Sussex, UK, who creates art from rubbish collected on her local beach cleans. Together, we discuss the issues of plastic pollution, what inspired her to pick cephalopods as her recent muse, and the concept of artivism.
“This process of sharing, engaging and discussing is what gets your message across. Whether you put a picture up on Instagram or create a huge piece of street art it is engaging with people’s emotions and making them think that will have an impact. And that’s how we save the world.”
How long have you been creating art like this, and what inspired you to start?
“It all started after the first lockdown when I visited my local beach and saw how badly littered it was. The beach was covered in takeaway packaging, bottles and cans. It wasn’t just my beach, it was a phenomenon that was being reported across the world. As lockdowns lifted and socialising moved outside, more and more people were visiting our coastline and parks and leaving their litter behind. Combine that with the trash washed in from the sea and my little beach looked very sorry for itself. I collected two big bags of trash and brought it home to sort out the recyclables. As I was sorting, I found a really lovely textural piece of plastic that had been smoothed by the sea. It got me thinking through the anger and before I knew it I'd created a puffin out of beach trash and was ranting on social media about plastic pollution and littered beaches. Now, I make all sorts of art works from the trash, exploring different materials and experimenting with different forms.”
What's the main type of pollution/rubbish you come across on your beach combs? Do you ever find cuttlebones or any cephalopod-related findings?
“There are items that I always find on beach cleans, like fishing gear, bottle tops, plastic bottles and lids, corks, hair bands and cable ties. as well as that there’s a lot of seasonal trash. In the summer months there’s always rubbish left behind by those enjoying the beach and sea. Food and drink packaging, beach toys and water sports gear, clothing and shoes. Then in the winter months the changing sea conditions and regular storms throw up lots of old and weathered plastic that’s been worn down by the sea and a huge amount of fishing gear lost or abandoned at sea. This abandoned fishing gear is known as ghost gear as its effects last long after its fishing lifespan. It catches and entangles wildlife and damages critical marine habitats such as kelp forests and coral reefs.
I like to enjoy the treasures as well as the trash and often find mermaid purses and cuttlefish bones. In the winter, there are often cuttlefish eggs washed up on my local beaches. Last year, after a call out from a local conservationist (@sussexunderwater_steve_allnutt) I rescued cuttlefish eggs and hatched them at home, releasing the little hatchlings over the following weeks. That was an amazing experience that made me even more determined to protect their habitat.”
Your art is a perfect example of how art and environmentalism come together - what is your perception of how the relationship between art and science works?
“I think art is a wonderful medium to raise awareness of a whole host of issues. In my case, I create creatures from the pollution that harms them to raise awareness of plastic pollution and the importance of conservation. It is a way to engage an audience, start a discussion and make people think differently. Since I started sharing my artwork, I've had lots of people contact me to say they have started regularly beach cleaning and now lots of my friends appear at my house with bags of beach trash. Artivism (art as a form of activism) isn’t a new concept, but I see it being used more and more to link science and art, especially around issues of climate change and conservation.”
You recently finished an octopus piece. Why did you decide to choose an octopus? How do you use science and what you learn/know about octopuses to inform your artistic practice?
“Ah the octopus! I found it a real struggle to imagine how I could make a creature that is so fluid out of beach trash. It was a commission piece and I honestly don’t think I would have braved it if I hadn't been asked to. I’m so glad I did though, and I’ve made about eight of them now.
Whenever I start a new creature I spend a lot of time researching them, looking at different images and watching videos of how they move. I write lots of notes and do lots of sketches. When I made my first humpback whale I learnt about ventral pleats and noted how much they looked like drinking straws stuck together. With the octopus, I knew I wanted to get a sense of their fluidity and show how beautiful their eyes are but it was more trial and error and a lot of thinking time as I wandered along the beach. I eventually had a brain wave as I was unravelling and coiling a long bit of fishing net and Netty was born.”
Are we likely to see any other cephalopods feature in your art line-up? Do you have a favourite cephalopod to share with our followers?
There’s a part of me that wants to celebrate the great cuttlefish rescue of 2021 by creating a cuttlefish or perhaps a group of hatchlings. That really would be a challenge. Watch this space..?
Thanks to Carmen for speaking to us, we hope you found this interview as thought-provoking and inspiring as we did. To follow Carmen and see her artwork, follow her on Instagram @tidelinetrashandtreasures